Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m in a wonderful, 5-1/2 year relationship with a great guy. It’s not all sunshine and roses (what relationship is?) but we’ve built a solid, great thing based on mutual respect, and I’m 100% sure he’s the one I want to spend the rest of my life with/meld my DNA with in eventual babies/what-have-you. I appreciate this, since I was coming out of a sexually abusive relationship when I met him, and really, it shows me that he’s a truly special guy to be patient with me through all the healing I had to go through to get to the point where I could have a healthy relationship with anyone. Bottom line, there’s no question of me leaving this guy.
However. His family (and circle of longtime family friends) are all terrible people.
I don’t mean this in the casual, don’t-get-along-with-the-mother-in-law way. I mean really terrible. A list of events that have happened only in the last year:
1) His father disagreed with me on a political issue I brought up casually, to someone else (he overheard me talking to them). He then screamed at me and called me names. He finished up by telling me I wasn’t allowed to speak in his house any more. For the rest of the day, if he heard me talking or trying to join a conversation, he would loudly talk over me until I stopped trying to speak. Seriously. A 60-year-old man did this.
2) We ran into a financial crisis due to some unexpected and urgent medical bills which we didn’t have the money to pay for (my fiance was unemployed for almost two years and I work in the low-paying world of non-profit office administration, so we have been pretty strapped for cash for some time). However, my fiance was due to come into some money he had inherited from his grandfather, and asked his mother (the executrix) whether he could get the check – which according to the terms of his grandfather’s will he should have received almost a year ago, but whatever, estate distribution can take time. She then informed him that she was deliberately withholding the money from him, and that she was thinking of giving the money to his 12-year-old brother instead (in direct violation of the will) just because she didn’t want my fiance to get this money and turn all lazy and dependent and stay unemployed forever. (Incidentally, he’s been working in construction and manual labor – despite having a master’s degree in education – just to make ends meet…not exactly the sort of guy who’s in danger of becoming a leech sucking from the teats of hardworking Americans or whatever she’s afraid of.) Long story short, we DIDN’T make rent that month, were threatened with eviction, and would have become homeless were it not for a loan from a good friend. When told that their son was on the brink of being a homeless person, his parents suggested that he seek therapy for his inability to accept blame for his own mistakes.
3) His sister and several family friends (all of whom he’s known since kindergarten and are like siblings to him) invited themselves over to my apartment while they thought I was at work to throw a party without asking or informing me. (One of these friends was crashing with us in our spare room while he looked for a new place to live.) The house was admittedly a mess – I wasn’t expecting company, so hadn’t cleaned, and there was a gigantic pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen. However, I happened to be home sick with the flu that day, and was sleeping in the bedroom. They had no idea that I was at home and could hear every word they said, and so proceeded to badmouth me in every conceivable way while I listened from my bedroom – saying that my house was so filthy they were embarrassed to know me (and presumably, to use my house without my consent for parties), that I should be on a reality TV show due to my hideous housekeeping skills, that I was fat and ugly, that I was a closet lesbian (I’m actually an out-and-proud bisexual), etc etc etc. I staggered out of my sickbed and confronted them, threw them all out of the house, and called my fiance. He asked them for an apology, which they refused to give because “everything we said about her was true, so she has no right to be offended. We’re just sorry she had to hear it from us.” Since then, I’ve been explicitly uninvited from several family parties because I was so mean to all these poor people, and they’d rather associate with the Asshole Brigade than with me.
I reiterate – this is all just within the year. There have been 5-1/2 years of bullshit, directed both at me AND at my fiance. He’s been going through major therapy to undo all the damage his emotionally abusive parents have done over the years – in fact every one of his siblings has major psychological problems, from schizophrenia to eating disorders, and knowing his parents it doesn’t surprise me a bit.
Now, by and large, my fiance is a very sweet guy. But he is fiercely loyal – and unfortunately, his first loyalty is to his family. He fully acknowledges that they are horrible. However, every conversation I have with him about this always turns back to what a bitch I am, and how hard I make it for them to be nice to me. He’s blamed me for “driving away” the friends who broke into our home and partied in it without asking, when they’re the ones who chose to uninvite me from all their events. (To be fair, I wouldn’t have hung out with them anyway.) He’s blamed me for provoking his father into screaming at me (apparently, by having a private conversation with a different person in a different room which he then inserted himself into). He’s told me that I just have to deal with it, that he doesn’t want to hear it – has even gone so far as to leave the room in a huff if I so much as bring one of these incidents up.
I’m not really sure how to react to this. I’ve really put forth an effort to be nice to his parents. I’ve never called names back (or at all), never lost my temper and screamed at them, never told them what I really think. I’ve never passed up an opportunity to do them a favor, gone to every single family event even though there’s a 75% chance I’ll end up getting treated like shit, and been generally as nice as I possibly can while hating every single one of these people to the core of my being. Mostly because I realize that if I love my fiance, I’m stuck with them until they all die off. However, I will admit that after years and years of bullshit, I am finally getting to the point where it’s hard for me to interact nicely with these people. I’m still doing my best, but at this point my gut instinct is to avoid them like the plague, which is hard since they live really nearby (within a mile) and we’re not yet in a financial situation where we can seriously consider a move.
I get that he doesn’t like to confront the fact that his parents/best friends are terrible people. It’s really hard to admit that the people you love are awful. I also get that I can’t change them, and I don’t really intend to try. Really, what I want to know is: how do I convince him to stop gaslighting me, making me believe that I’m the whole problem and that his social circle are the unwilling victims of my bitchitude? I know, intellectually, that that isn’t true (and he claims he does as well), but it’s hard to keep believing that emotionally, in the moment, and I don’t know how to defend myself anymore. This is really the only ongoing problem our relationship has, but I’m sick of being the scapegoat for his family’s bizarre problems, and I don’t know how to get him to let go of the emotions and stop blaming me for their bad behavior. Short of couples therapy (which he’s very resistant to), I feel like we’ve been over this situation so many times that it’s impossible to have a sane, rational conversation about our respective situations without bringing up all our years of baggage around this issue – a recipe for relationship disaster if there ever was one. Even worse, I don’t want to continue down the Path of Bitch and wind up giving them actual fodder for all their hate and accusations – but I think they’re starting to wear me down, and I’m not sure how much I can take before snapping and doing something really awful (punches to the gut figure largely in my rage-fantasies/nightmare scenarios).
I’m pulling out the relationship flowchart for you.
Here’s the deal:
After 5.5 years you have all the information you need about how this will go and what is likely to happen. People are capable of some incremental change, but you really can’t make them change, and you can waste a lot of effort and a lot of time hanging in there hoping that they’ll change and silently willing and vocally asking them to change without changing a damn thing except your own sanity and stress levels.
A lot of people write in not sure that they have a problem or because they’re afraid to bring up the problem. That’s not you. There is a problem (the thing with his dad…wow). You’ve done the hard work of talking about the problem and asking for him to meet your needs. You’ve shown a lot of backbone, courage, and fortitude by standing up to people and throwing them out of your space when they are disrespectful. The downside of this is that you’re talked it out and it still hasn’t changed.
Relationships are about choice. So here are your choices:
Accept the status quo. Lower your expectations and accept that his shitty family and how he treats you around them is the price of admission for all the awesome stuff about the relationship that I can’t grasp through the internet. Accept that it’s not going to improve. This is how it’s always going to be.
Leave. Take some time to heal from the emotional abuse (that’s what’s going on here, btw). You will miss him and grieve for what might have been. However your life works out, you will be totally free of dealing with these people and having a partner who gaslights you and blames you for your mistreatment by his family.
You say in your first paragraph that you’re not leaving him. I want to be respectful of that, but I think he is not treating you well here (he’s not treating himself well, either – those often go hand-in-hand). Let me suggest a few interim measures designed to preserve your own sanity.
Ask for his best-case scenario. “Partner, I know you can’t control how your family treats me and the things they do are not your fault. But things are seriously grinding me down. I don’t want to rehash the past, so let’s focus on what we can do in the future. How do you see this working out over time? Do you think it will get better? What can we do to make it better? In your perfect ideal world, how will this all work?”
Don’t talk. Listen. Give him some time to come up with an answer. Let him be the one doing the emotional work of coming up with ways to make it better.
And then see if it’s a good plan. Is it a vision that jibes with your own dreams for the future?
Ask for a break from interacting with his family. Take your non-invitation to family parties for the sweet, sweet gift that it is. Make it your choice to stop going to family events. Stop trying. Stop being nice. Let your partner do all the work of dealing with his family and smoothing things over. Change your cell phone number – they should call only him. Change your email address – they should email only him. Change the locks on the house. They don’t get a key. He can remember their birthdays, shop for presents, keep track of what events are when, and bake the fucking cake to take to the pot luck. Script: “I need a break from dealing with your family for a bit. I’m going to bow out of social occasions for the next few months and see if we can’t reset things with a little time and space. You go on ahead and hang out with them, I’ll make other plans.”
Make some ground rules:
- He should use very neutral excuses for why you aren’t there. Don’t explain. Don’t exaggerate. Short and sweet: “Scapegoat couldn’t make it today but she said to tell you hello.” + Change of subject.
- If they say mean things about you, he should keep them to himself. He can be the buffer and protect you from their bile. You can’t control what they will do, but you get a say in whether you have to hear about it. Disengage.
- Put a time-limit on it. Three months, then you’ll re-evaluate. As in, in three months or so you’ll go to a family party for a few hours, but if anyone is mean to you, you’re allowed to GTFO of there with his full backing. “Sorry we can’t stay, maybe next time.“
- If his dad yells at you again (ever), you can say “You don’t get to talk to me that way,” stand up, walk out of the room, walk out of the house, and keep walking. People like that are going to behave terribly no matter what you do and then blame it all on you. If your partner would like to stay as your partner, he should learn to say “Really, Dad?” and walk out right after you.
Seek help and support for yourself. You say he’s in therapy, what about you? You need someone on your side. What about your friends? Put some time into seeking activities you do without him, without his family, without asshole friends.
Ask the hard question. If your best friend or future adult child were in this situation, being mistreated and ground down by a situation like this, what would you tell him or her to do? I think you know the answer to this, so ask yourself (and your therapist) why it’s so hard to see yourself as deserving that same love, compassion, and fierce protective instinct.
I know that right now the thought of walking away from this person you love, especially after so much time, is really scary and sad and feels impossible to contemplate. But the way we enforce boundaries is by following through on ending a conversation or absenting ourselves from a situation when we need to protect ourselves. It’s great that he helped you get over some of the bad treatment you suffered at the hands of others and feel whole again, and I can see why that is a powerful bond. That gratitude is real, those ties are real, the love you share is real.
But you don’t owe him the rest of your life to be treated poorly and then made to feel like it’s your fault in exchange for that. To invoke Friend of Blog Sheelzebub, could you put up with things being exactly like this for another year? Another 5 years? Another 10? Forever? And I feel like it’s a cheap shot to invoke your theoretical kids, but any small future DNA-sharing beings are going to be part of that shitty family, with maybe you as their only advocate and protector.
Here’s an old letter that approached this from the perspective of the person with the shitty family, maybe it will give the two of you something to work with as a framework for how he can negotiate better with his family, but ultimately he’s the one who has to do the work. Can you trust him to do it?
My strong, honest, personal opinion is that you should seek therapy of your own and start making plans to leave this relationship behind within the next six months. I am really pessimistic about things getting better. But the choice is yours. So. Commenters, listen up. I’m going to specifically ask everyone to not use the letters “d”, “t”, “m”, “f,” and “a” or variations thereof in your responses. It’s really easy to say that when it’s not your life and it doesn’t actually help the Letter Writer to be patronized by strangers.
Some things I’d like to see here are:
1. Were you able to get a partner to make a big change around something like this? If so, what worked both in terms of helping them make the change and taking care of yourself in the meantime?
2. Were you able to leave an important, serious relationship that wasn’t working and then rebuild your life into something happier? If so, what worked?
327 thoughts on “#329: My partner won’t set boundaries with his horrible family.”
The reality is, this is a relationship to walk away from. His family will never change, and he will never accept that they are anything but wonderful people that she makes it so hard to be around by her bitchness because she won’t lie down and let them wipe their feet on her.
Time to cut your losses and get out.
When the captain suggested asking yourself “what if this was someone else”, that’s like some of the best advice ever.
My husbands family is similar to this, although more on the passive abrasive silence for months types. His mothers second husband (who is dead and should have died more painfully) was horribly abusive in every way to him and his family.
When we first got together, and I started finding out about the abuse, I would ask “why aren’t you more angry with your mother?” because he at the time was insanely loyal to her and wouldnt broke any criticism. He would say “because she kept him from killing us. She told us so”
I then told him “if I said that about my mother, how would you feel?”
“I’d be really angry and furious she didn’t protect-ooooooh.” and that was the moment he began to see his family in truth and not blind love.
I wonder if the LW has asked the fiancée “how would you feel if my family treated you horribly and I did nothing but blamed it on you?”
I know I’m off topic here, but WHO THE FUCK SAYS TO THEIR KIDS THAT THEY KEPT AN ABUSIVE DUDE FROM KILLING THEM?!
Ah well…a bad one?
Hubby has set firm boundaries with them, and when they began to ostracize me alone, told them “we are a package deal. Either you respect and treat my wife politely, or you don’t have contact with me at all”
Things are much better now.
My boyfriend’s mom. : (
I also know a family where this was the case. Believe me, all 5 kids knew full well that their Dad was abusive, and down right murderous when he was drunk. It wasn’t revealing state secrets.
Also @ the goat diva, I once asked my friend from this family why she didn’t go to therapy, and she gave a similar answer to your husband’s. That conflict – the feelings of deep loyalty to the non-abusive parent while simultaneously blaming and resenting the same – is a complete mind fuck, AFAICT.
The thing that usually takes a lot of therapy to realize is that in those situations there is no such thing as a “non-abusive parent.” There is a less abusive parent, there is a parent who might actually be thinking that she’s doing the best she can because her thinking is screwed because she’s in an abusive environment, too, but she is still doing harm.
Maybe she is doing the best she can. If she’s been abused for years, is it her fault (trick question!) if she can’t see it and can’t function as she is?
I think if you feel you’re in a relationship where you’d have to protect the kids from your partner, you should seriously evaluate either the relationship or your decision to have kids, if at all possible. Responsibility for someone else’s life isn’t to be taken lightly and I wish the decision to raise children was taken more seriously by society in general.
Guess what the most common time is for abuse to escalate from verbal to physical in heterosexual relationships? Pregnancy.
That’s the classic pattern: wear someone down, diminish her self-worth incrementally with verbal abuse, and then, once she’s trapped (i.e. pregnant and believing the lie that she’s worthless) start on the physical abuse. If abusers wore t-shirts that announced them as such, they would be possible to avoid.
Educate yourself on how this stuff works before you start victim-blaming.
Tell that to Hedda Nussbaum.
Ginmar – Not sure if that was in response to me or to TR. If it’s in reference to the fact that Lisa was adopted, there are of course always exceptions. There were quite a few things that were atypical about the Steinberg case. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very common pattern of abuse, due to a combination of increased vulnerability on the part of the abused and increased sense of ownership on the part of the abuser.
TR, how come the battered woman who cannot care for herself——and was, in Nussbaum’s case, near death herself—–is being held to a standard where she has to suddenly overcome all her mental and physical injuries to protect kids?
It takes an average of seven times for a battered woman to leave the abuser. It’s really easy to be healthy and not be tortured mentally and physically every day, but when one’s teliing a woman to do something in circumstances that one is not in, it’s victim blaming. You’re demanding superhuman things.
To the person who asked about adoption…..Yeah, that didn’t have anything to do with it. Nussbaum was so battered that physically she looked like a boxer who’d been beaten in every round she ever fought. Just because the mental injuries are harder to spot doesn’t mean that they’re not there. By the time there are kids, the woman has been beaten to a nub, mentally and physically.
How come we’re talking about battered women and not battering men?
The question of fault or ability doesn’t matter much when you’re talking about the effects of abuse. Could be for the best reason in the world; that doesn’t make the kids un-hurt.
Staranise, a bunch of people talking about a post somebody wrote tells me nothing. How come people are expecting horribly-injured women to do superhuman things when they can’t even help themselves? Children are how a batterer traps the victim. You’re expecting superhuman things of mothers who have been abused for years, not for themselves, but for kids.
No wonder battered women fear asking for help. This kind of Madonna standard keeps women fearing even their friends.
I know a lot of women who DID remove themselves from abusive situations out of concern for the kids. Their exes said they were trying to alienate the kids against them because they were concerned their exes would have unsupervised access to the kids. The courts agreed. The exes of these friends have shared custody and/or unsupervised visitation at a great detriment to the kids. And yes, this has happened even with police reports and a paper trail of abuse. ****Trigger warning:****In 20101, one guy texted threats to his ex girlfriend and her family, wrote threatening emails, made threatening calls, and even wrote a freaking story about how he’d kill their baby and himself. He admitted to assaulting her in an email. The sheriff got an emergency restraining order for her. Despite all this–and the sheriff’s reports of him assaulting her and threatening her and their baby when she dropped him off for visitation–the three judges allowed him unsupervised visitation and called her a liar.
That’s one case. There are others.
Yes, we should help people to leave, yes, it’s often the best thing but there are very valid reasons why people don’t and I think it’s beyond cruel and arrogant to make statements that the non-abusive partner is somehow doing harm by staying. The non-abusive partner is often in a situation where she (sometimes he) cannot win–family pressure, boundary violations, and courts siding with the abuser and accusing the non-abusive parent of lying or trying to alienate the kids.
I do not think it is at all fair or realistic to blame the parent who isn’t abusing the kids for not doing enough when that parent and the kids are often penalized for trying to get out.
That’s for sure!
Or she knows full well she AND her children are in danger of being killed if she tries to leave? Which btw is NOT “screwed up” thinking, it’s pretty goddamned rational and an accurate risk assessment (ahem).
And the FUCK is up with the victim blaming around the reproductive choices!?!? It may interest you to know that a ROUTINE tactic of abusive men, besides rape and sexual coercion, is BC sabotage.
I am giving the side eye to this blamestorming. Guess what?! Sometimes people who are doing everything “right” find themselves in totally FUCKED situations. After which, they do the best they goddamned can. EVERYONE loses in familial abuse patterns, no one gets out unaffected. The point of my story is was that what the goat diva described is not at all unusual in these totally fucked situations.
How many of those “Man kills wife, self,” stories do you see in the paper in a year? Another isolated incident, of course. There were a couple of cases here where I live where one guy disabled the security system and killed the ex and her new hubbie and I think the children. In another case, the guy did kill her—-and her mother for good measure. Leaving is the ultimate threat; staying might keep her alive—-and the kids, too.
My mother got pregnant twelve times—-and had four living children. I never received a satisfactory explanation of how my extremely early birth was brought on by mom falling down the steps in the house, when that house had no steps.
Ginmar, etc. you guys are making very good points, but between the hungry, hungry spam filter and my own other priorities tonight and tomorrow I can’t stay on top of this and moderate it like I should.
Let’s close down this particular subthread about battered women (which does not describe the LW, so far, though I definitely recognize the emotional abuse in the situation), Nussbaum, et al. If you want to carry the discussion over to your own site, please post a link so others can follow. Thank you.
I didn’t see this–please feel free to delete my comment from the spam filter.
Oh, crud, I’m sorry. I didn’t see this either. I’m new here and do not mean to be rude.
People who are broken enough themselves that they think they deserve a medal for doing things that most people think are basic requirements. I’ve run into it a lot, unfortunately. Anecdotally, it seems to come from some sort of past abuse/low-self esteem thing where they don’t see themselves as being worthy of stuff other people think are standard either, and therefore consider doing those things for others as a gift they give out of the goodness of their hearts (“I give you more than I give myself”). YMMV, of course.
I had a friend in college who wound up staying with a relative who was not one of his parents for [genuinely good family-related reasons]. Said relative constantly told him that he was lucky she gave him a roof and clothes and food and so forth. He believed her until I pointed out that she was his legal guardian at the time, and had she NOT given him those things, she could have been charged with neglect. It was apparently a lightbulb moment.
“People who are broken enough themselves that they think they deserve a medal for doing things that most people think are basic requirements.” EXACTLY!!
Once in a therapy session we were discussing the emotional abuse in our marriage. My husband said, “But I never hit you!” (He was raised in a physically abusive home.) The therapist stopped him, then looked at me and asked, “Do you see how low his bar is?”
My bar is decidedly higher than that, and I deserve better. We’re separated now, and I’ll be filing for a divorce. It’s been 18 years, and I’m a patient woman, but I’ve had enough.
My ex’s mother. In fact, I think there are probably many, many abused women telling their children what heroes they are to protect said children because it’s a way of seeing the family system that makes it a little less shitty. In their heads. Because of course it is actually a house full of bees anyway.
For women like my mother, it’s the only reality they know.
My mother is an uneducated immigrant from an off-the-grid village in a culture that treats domestic violence as a fact of life and persecutes people who rock the boat. My father is a violent, abusive SOB, and us kids are lucky to have gotten out alive (if not emotionally healthy). My mother still lives in fear for her life.
Every day that we survived in that house was a small miracle. I didn’t understand it when I was growing up and frustratedly encouraging my mother to leave my father, but I understand it now. He’s a high risk abuser who has tried to murder her before, and she lacks even basic survival skills (opening a bank account, signing a lease, etc.), never mind the skills she would need to have to leave him and go into hiding effectively. What could she possibly have done with three kids in tow?? She’s instinctively known all along that if she left, he would find her and murder her, and the literature supports her instincts. How can we judge and fault a woman in that predicament?
Someone whose perspective has become so screwed up that that’s considered a good thing, I’m guessing.
(Not to excuse her at all; that’s an effing horrible thing to say. But it sounds like they lived in a messed-up situation all around, and she didn’t handle it well.)
In husbands case, his grandmother and uncle both fought for custody of him because they knew step-bastard was abusing them. But MIL (and these are her words exactly) wouldn’t let them “because I knew it was a bad situation, but I didn’t need my mothers help to raise my kids.”
So MIL knew it was bad, had multiple opportunities to get her kids out, and admits she didn’t because of an ego grudge against her mother.
Yes, there are many, many, many times when a woman has no help or support to get out. And if she hadn’t admitted she essentially allowed her children to be horrifically abused because she couldn’t admit to her mother she was wrong, I would assume it was the same. But this is a woman who allowed her husband to put a logging chain around a 4 year old neck for 72 hours for scratching the bumper of a truck, who watched from the doorway as that same child had to “dig his grave”, lay down in the whole, and have dirt heaped on him for asking for seconds, who never ever took a blow for her children, even when one of them was SHOT IN THE FACE.
Sorry. I do place blame on her. And I always will.
All battered women are not that woman.
No they definitely are not. That’s what I was trying to say-sorry if they didn’t come across clearly.
Thanks. But my mother was battered and it destroyed her, even when he had a huge awakening. Everybody’s different. When I say destroyed, I mean it: what was left was a shell of what she’d been. And my siblings judged her for it. She did the best she could. (My sisters especially made excuses for my father. My brother hated it, but for the absolute wrong reasons.) And my dad was one of those who did change, but too late. The damage could not be fixed. I’d say there were some problems in her childhood, too, but she wouldn’t talk about that. I got enough perspective to see what had happened to her. And when my older brother started beating me, she couldn’t help me and I had nowhere to go. That was in the bad old days when jobs could be advertised according to gender, when women couldn’t get credit without their husbands’ permission, and so on.
When my mother tentatively went to the priest for help, he said, “Perhaps if you weren’t such a bad wife he wouldn’t hit you.” Try enough times to get help and get that response? It’ll kill you. There’s some people that can’t heal that wound.
That is utterly horrific. I am so sorry that happened to you / them/ anyone, ever! Wow.
((major Jedi hugs to everyone in this thread, starting with LW & CA!))
I had a reply all typed out, but I think it got eaten.
MIL admits it was an abusive situation, and that she had multiple opportunities to get them out (grandma fought for custody for almost a decade), but she would rather have and abusive situation than admit to her mother she was wrong to marry him.
She said that. So yeah, not victim blaming really in this case.
And now it shows up. Lovely.
Sorry, the spam filter is fucked. I do not sit staring at it all day every day, so sometimes comments have to wait.
Oh no worries! I wasn’t being critical of you at all. I just hate sounding like a nagging commenter….
I’m going to paraphrase myself here, as I said something like this to another LW, but–he’s showing you in full, technicolor glory how little you mean to him and how unimportant your safety and your well-being is to him. He’s also showing you in full, technicolor glory what kind of partner he will continue to be–one who shrugs off his family and friends’ crappy, threatening, and disrespectful behavior towards you, blames you for it, and calls you names.
You cannot talk him into stopping these behaviors and treating you with respect when it comes to his family and friends’ behavior towards you. You can only decide what it is you can live with.
Can you live with that for another 5 years? For 10? For 20? With children in the mix?
Oh, and CA–thank you for the quote!
LW, I really hope you are okay. I wasn’t through a specific situation like this, but I was in a relationship where the BF blamed me for his behavior, dismissed me, called me names, etc. I tried to work things out because I thought maybe I was being oversensitive. Or not being nice enough. It didn’t work. Logic didn’t work. Trying to appeal to his sense of empathy didn’t work because either it was “different” or he’d be all contrarian to try and shut me up. Or he’d agree but then continue to act the way he always did and tell me that he wasn’t really acting that way.
I finally got to the point where I realized that it didn’t matter–I just. could. not. live. with. it. anymore.
I am much, much happier now.
I’ll also echo the advice for you to get your own therapist. You’ve gone from one relationship to another one, you’ve been breathing the stale and toxic air of your BF’s family’s dysfunction, and you could probably use some space and time to sort through what’s going on. Please consider this if you don’t have a therapist. If you do have one, I hope you’re talking with them about this situation.
I think there’s good, relevant stuff in here, too: https://captainawkward.com/2012/05/14/247-marrying-into-a-family-with-awful-boundary-issues-or-secrets-of-dealing-with-highly-difficult-people/
I have a wonderful partner with a family that has been a problem — not as horribly as your partner’s family has, but there have been real, serious issues around their behavior towards me and towards their child/sibling, my partner. One difference between my partner’s family’s behavior and your partner’s family’s behavior is that my partner’s family is visibly improving. That is, after years of difficulty, they are inviting me semi-regularly to family events. They are treating me, for the most part, with respect, although there are still issues that bother me about the way they treat my partner (and the way my partner submits to their treatment). They still don’t like the idea of us (same-sex couple) marrying, but they acknowledge my existence.
This is slow change, but it gives me hope for the future. Because I have hope, I can wait and see how my relationship with my partner and her family improves.
LW, do you have hope? Do you see any signs of change or improvement? Is there a way out of the current situation? Is the current situation entirely untenable, or can you deal with it? How long can you deal with it?
Those are the questions I think you need to keep in mind as you make your decisions. Very best of luck to you.
Thanks for this!
What strategies have you used to put up with them?
What concrete steps has your partner put in place to shield you from them?
Do you know what changed? Is there a reason things are improving now?
What strategies have you used to put up with them?
We’ve been in a LDR for much of the relationship, and for years I lived on the opposite side of the country, so I didn’t have to deal with them much directly. But I’ve gone with the Attack of Friendliness strategy (which I don’t recommend for LW, because I would have lost my patience years before with the kind of treatment she’s getting!). I smile, I engage in conversation, I help out in the kitchen, I prove repeatedly that I’m a Perfectly Nice Person and not an Evil Lesbian Stereotype. Once when I was getting the silent treatment from her sibling, I pointedly said hello and waited to see whether he’d acknowledge my existence. When an aunt was ignoring me at an event, I challenged myself to get her into a conversation, however brief, and felt triumphant when she answered my comment about the weather.
What concrete steps has your partner put in place to shield you from them?
This is a tough one — I’m not sure that the steps Partner uses are entirely effective or well-chosen. PFamily tends to ignore or override Partner’s reality. Partner comes to me for reality checks. I give the reality checks to Partner, and then I get angry about the way they treat her. Partner defends PFamily to me, because she loves them, because they are, in fact, improving, because it’s hard for her to hear me speak negatively about them. In the years when they insulted our relationship to her and she repeated the insults to me, I would get very upset, and Partner would then get upset about whatever I said about her family then. It’s not as bad now, but there are still times we get into the “That’s totally wrong, how can you let them treat you that way?” / “Don’t say that about my family!” cycle. I don’t have a solution for it, and neither does Partner.
Do you know what changed? Is there a reason things are improving now?
A few things. They’re a very conservative family, and it takes a long, long time for new ideas to filter through, but the ideas are visibly filtering. Also… well, my Friendliness Campaign is working, and the family is realizing, due to other recent events, how nice I actually am and how much worse Partner’s choice could have been.
Partner and I are also learning, slowly, about how to face issues as a team, how to work together, how to make decisions that balance our mutual best interest with our personal needs and our respective families’ needs. Again, it takes time, and we haven’t fixed everything, but the fact that it gets a little better every time we hit a major issue is a good sign.
Thanks, I’m trying to get a few “this is what a workable solution could look like” examples going. I’m really glad things are going your way, finally.
I am so sorry this is happening to you. My husband’s family wasn’t thrilled with me at first, either. Most of them were polite but his cousin/good friend/guy who thought he was my husband’s mentor or something was pretty awful (behind my back, though). It actually didn’t bother me as much as it did my husband and my husband voluntarily ceased contact with his cousin for a while. The cousin eventually got over it, but I don’t think that would have happened without that time and space apart.
The cousin did eventually apologize (to my husband, not to me) on our wedding day. But it took a long, long cooling off period and my husband unequivocally choosing me over his cousin and refusing to interact with anyone who would badmouth me. He did that on instinct, not because I demanded it. I don’t think your boyfriend will ever get there.
LW, this is going to be your life for as long as you stay with your BF. Couples therapy can give you tools to deal with this together, but your boyfriend doesn’t even want that. He doesn’t want the situation to change, he wants YOU to accept it. I am really sorry.
Yeah, speaking as someone who comes from “bad” family: he is actively behaving terribly towards you whenever his family comes up. He’s not even just being passive about it like most of us are, he attacks you! He may be nice the rest of the time, but he absolutely does not have your back. He’s stabbing you in the front like the rest of them, I’m sorry to say.
my partner is so, so full of anxiety around his parents – everyone notices it, other people comment on it including his sibling, etc – that he totally lashes out at me if I do something that seems like rocking the boat.
These are basically nice people, nothing as bad as the getting shouted over (just ignored. Or talked over in a nonhostile way. Or ruled out as not a part of reality, as in “Nobody would do X thing that I know you do, that’s a horrible thing to do!”) and I do know that his family actually likes me and wants me to like them back. So there is an underlying layer of goodwill. But his anxiety means I’m not allowed to Use My Words, and they are not hint-picker-uppers, so nothing will ever improve between us.
So, I use a lot of the techniques JenniferP listed, especially the “I don’t care to hear what they said about me or what guilt trip they are slinging at you, thank you.” That has been pretty awesome.
Also, we went to therapy and no behavior changed on his or his family’s side. But it made me feel better, because it reminded me of something I already knew: you can’t expect a person to protect you better than they protect themselves. Partner will forever and always allow his mother’s whims (expressed, implied, or made up on his end) to overrule his needs. That means that he will throw my boundaries and needs under the bus if she so much as squints. I couldn’t keep expecting different behavior from him and being surprised and disappointed, I have to treat it as an expected result of being around them, and plan accordingly, like I take sunscreen to the beach and longjohns on backcountry hikes.
I also learned from therapy that he thinks very highly of me and that’s why I got to join him in the role of Reasonable Skilled Person Who Can Cope And So Must Yield To Noncopeful Possibly Explosive Person. It’s still not fair, it’s still actually a really stupid role to even exist, but my thinking he thought i was stupid and oversensitive and impolite was wrong. He just was raised to think the smart, capable ones are the ones who should take all the shit.
I totally disengaged. I stopped parenting at all when we are around his parents. I respond to his family with distance and neutrality, I do not get into substantive discussions with them. I absent myself from any family gathering that I dislike the parameters of (timing, length, location).
I stopped blaming his family for most of it, because the pain was him letting me down over and over. MY PARTNER is choosing not to back me up. It’s because rocking the boat even a little causes him huge emotional pain, but it’s still a choice he’s making. His mom saying rude things to me? Who cares, I barely know her, whatever. Him lighting into me for standing up for myself? That is what hurts, and i tell him so. Over time those lashouts have nearly disappeared, because I kept pointing them out and making it about how *I* felt about *his* actions, instead of what his family did/meant/expected.
I do pick my battles and occasionally engage – his mom spanked our son, and told us about it (brave and honest!) and I did not say one word to her about it, I hmned neutrally and then talked to Partner about it so he could call her back, as part of my “not involved in this fucked up relationship” strategy. Partner’s first response was to shrug it off, no big deal, not worth talking to her about it will make her feel bad. I told him if he didn’t confront her, I would, and if we couldn’t work through it kiddo was never going there alone again. So he did, and it was a pretty nonpainful discussion of a one-time lapse, as far as I can tell (there was some later teary “do you hate me for doing this?” but it blew over quickly – and I didn’t have to be part of it. YAY)
There, that is my strategy. I’m not sure any of it is applicable because, like I said, his family: well meaning, just fucked up.
Right there with Jenfullmoon on this one. I hate to repeat this, so if another commenter has already said it, I apologize, but—this is what is known as ‘abuse by proxy’, and it is one of the classic tools of an abuser. Letting other people line up to take a piece out of you and then telling you that you deserve it? Is abuse, straight up. My ex-husband’s shitty family used me as their combination servant and whipping girl and my ex not only encouraged this, he let me know as hatefully as he could that they were more important than me and could do that with no consequences and that I would just have to eat it. NOPE. Not okay, worlds of not okay, not ever.
Oh, LW. Please read your own letter back to yourself. Maybe pretend it was written by a friend or a sibling of yours.
“I’m in a wonderful, 5-1/2 year relationship with a great guy […] we’ve built a solid, great thing based on mutual respect”
“[E]very conversation I have with him about this always turns back to what a bitch I am, and how hard I make it for them to be nice to me.”
“He’s blamed me for “driving away” the friends who broke into our home and partied in it without asking, when they’re the ones who chose to uninvite me from all their events.”
“He’s blamed me for provoking his father into screaming at me (apparently, by having a private conversation with a different person in a different room which he then inserted himself into).”
“He’s told me that I just have to deal with it, that he doesn’t want to hear it – has even gone so far as to leave the room in a huff if I so much as bring one of these incidents up.”
LW – just because he’s a “great guy” with whom you have “mutual respect” (of which I see no evidence in your letter, by the way) who was patient with you as you dealt with the traumatic relationship you were coming out of and the healing you went through … doesn’t mean you can’t leave him.
When this was me (alcoholic abusive parents-in-common-law, siblings-in-common-law who called me stupid, fat, and more) and he would not seek help (because therapy is for losers) then I got counselling for myself (trying to fix myself?) and eventually realized that they were unable to act appropriately, that there was no change coming, and it wasn’t my fault – I left.
He isn’t doing anything to deal with his toxic family, and is in fact blaming you for their toxic behaviour. If he’s not willing to seek therapy or cut down/off contact with them or actually respect that you want nothing to do with them … you know your choices are stay or go. Your decision is your decision.
LW, I’m going to take you at your word that your guy is wonderful. I’m sure you have a bunch of positive experiences with him that didn’t make it into this letter.
Which is why it was surprise for me to read how badly HE (not his family) is treating you about this situation.
“turns back to what a bitch I am”
“blamed me for provoking his father”
“making me believe that I’m the whole problem and that his social circle are the unwilling victims of my bitchitude”
This is not the way wonderful partners treat each other!
LW, you know the whole picture about your relationship with your partner. Is this really the only situation where he treats you this way? If so, it’s still not ok, but it sounds like it will be the price of admission for a relationship with him. If not–if when you sit down and think about it you realize that there are a bunch of other times when he treats you the same way as when his family comes up–then please recognize that fact and think long and hard about what it means.
Either way, the decision about whether to stay with him or not is yours. If you stay, as others have suggested, it seems like the most healthy way to deal with this nasty dynamic is just to avoid interaction with the mess that is his family. You don’t need to go through that and you should not go through that.
Good luck to you!
Yeah, I did a serious double-take when I got to that part of the letter. I was right there with you, LW, right up until–wait, he does WHAT??
It struck me that LW’s partner is abused himself – emotionally, I mean – by his parents, and doesn’t seem able to see it. That bit about his mother saying she’ll withhold the money left him in the will? The whole attitude toward him? It reeks of abuse. Which makes me think he’s in no position to help LW at all.
Thanks for saving me the typing. I got to the “what a bitch I am” part in the letter and thought “wow, this really buried the lede.” The awful family is beyond his control. Having a hard time balancing familial obligation, history, and your relationship – all understandable. But don’t let how unbelievably awful those people are overshadow the fact that this person isn’t being your advocate -at-all-.
I don’t think we have to always take our partner’s sides on things. Grod knows I screw up enough things and need mine to say “you really need to back that up, dude.” But when they drop everything at your doorstep, particularly in a mess like this, they’re not supporting you. I’d wager this person isn’t supportive in other places too and it’s just easy to miss because the family thing is so over-the-top.
“I’m going to specifically ask everyone to not use the letters “d”, “t”, “m”, “f,” and “a” or variations thereof in your responses.”
OK, bu his kes nswering kind o hrd.
In other words, what are these restrictions supposed to mean??
The phrase “DTMFA” stands for Dump The MotherFucker Already. Maybe JFGI next time?
DTMFA is used sometimes to stand in for Dump The Mother Fucker Already. Which, considering the first paragraph from the letter writer, isn’t what she wrote in to hear.
DTMFA is a Dan Savage phrase meaning ‘dump that motherfucker already’
Man, we were all on that like LIGHTNING!
Hee, I’m glad I refreshed before posting my reply!
“dump the motherfucking asshole.”
DTMFA is an acronym invented by Dan Savage: Dump (Ditch?) the Motherfucker Already.
…that’s what I get for not refreshing comments before posting!
And the point of all this was, there can be a strong tendency in such cases to glibly tell the LW to ditch the dude.
But imagine if the LW said “I know it looks like my only option is to move to Texas, but the idea of moving to Texas rends my soul and breaks my heart, do you have any other ideas?” and everyone said “Duh, girl, you need to move to Texas!” Not listening! Not respecting!
Here, it’s not that we have to pretend we are sanguine about happily ever after with this guy. The price of admission to this relationship is really, really high, because the price of being part of his family is absurdly high and he is ok with making her be the one who pays it.
But what she’s asking for are ways to cope with the situation, or improve it.
I think it’s still ok to say we’re not sanguine — how could we be? — and to try to help her see the unsustainability of what she’s living with. The captain was just saying “don’t be glib and knee-jerk about it; that’s not helpful.”
This is totally true. It’s just really hard in this case to come up with any way to improve the situation when “leave” is not allowed. I like the Captain’s “don’t go to any events with them” solution best, but I don’t know if that’s sustainable in the long term. If you can stomach “put up with whatever they dish out, be totally silent and passive as long as you’re around them, forever,” I suppose that’s another way. It’s hard to do, though, and I say that as someone who perpetually tries it.
I don’t think *any* of it is sustainable in the long term.
Excellent summary, alphakitty. LW’s partner didn’t strike me as the sort of bloke that applies to anyway. If anything I thought he sounded like he’s abused and damaged emotionally, too, but not able to see it or acknowledge it, perhaps. I dont know … but I don’t think, sadly, they can help each other as things are.
The bottom line here is that only the partner can reset boundaries with his family and the only way he can do this is to make it absolutely crystal clear through his actions that when they treat the LW poorly they lose access to both LW *and* him. This means that as soon as they say or do something shitty to the LW, he has to say, “You can’t say/do that to LW. We are leaving now.”, and then they both need to leave. Anything else just rewards and reinforces their behavior.
Speculative paragraph: They are doing this because they want to exert control over LW’s partner by making him miserable in the middle of this terrible situation and forcing him to “choose” between “loyalty” to them or love for the LW. They don’t give a shit about LW per se, except as a means to attack and punish him. This is why LW absenting herself unilaterally will have no salutary effect on the family’s behavior, and will only reward it by giving them yet another situation about which to attack LW’s partner. People like this are miserable and are locked into a pattern where their only relief from their own misery is to make other people miserable, too.
And I too am not optimistic about any good outcome here other than LW moving on. In my experience, people like the partner’s parents essentially never change once they reach their 50s/60s, and younger people who have been severely damaged by such parents as the LW’s partner has can only change with extensive individual therapy *not in the context of also attempting to maintain/repair a love relationship* but aimed solely at healing themselves.
Your speculative paragraph rings quite true to me.
My husband’s mom often behaves in irrational ways and develops bitter feuds with people for reasons that make little sense. He tells me that, from the time he was a little kid, he always assumed his mom would hate his wife and make their lives a living hell. He had resigned himself to the idea that he would one day need to cut his mom out of his life completely, and was pleasantly surprised that his mom is very nice to me.
In contrast, my husband’s brother still relies on his mom both financially and emotionally, even though he is in his early thirties. He has a girlfriend I’ll call “Nikki,” and his mom is really nasty to her in a way that seems similar to the LW’s partner’s family’s behavior.
I think the way my husband’s mom interacts me versus Nikki has little to do with any differences between the two of us, but a lot to do with her different relationships with her sons. My husband has been financially independent since he graduated from high school, and he would cut ties with his mom in a heartbeat if she treated me poorly. But his brother is not financially or emotionally prepared to live life fully independent from his mom. Mistreating Nikki is a proxy way of manipulating my brother-in-law, and this is safe for my mother-in-law to do because he’s made it pretty clear that he’s not going anywhere.
After a nasty exchange at a family event a few years back, Nikki took me aside and asked me in tears what I did to make our mother-in-law not hate me. I told her exactly what I wrote in the previous paragraph – that it was her boyfriend’s job to enforce her perfectly reasonable boundaries around his mom, because our mother-in-law’s behavior had more to do with him than with her. Nikki’s response was to admonish me for picking on her boyfriend – in her mind, he was a really good guy in a difficult, stressful situation, they had a great life and a great relationship apart from the issues with his mom, and I was completely out of line to criticize his loyalty to his family.
LW, I’d like to reiterate with what the Captain and many other posters have said. At the heart of it, this is not a problem you have with your partner’s awful family and friends. This is a problem you have with your partner, and you’ve been given some eminently reasonable and constructive scripts with which to approach him. If he’s unable or unwilling to support you, there’s no magic thing you can do to fix these problems on your own. Please take care of yourself.
The only other option I can think of – and it would take both money they don’t have and an acknowlegement of the familial abuse (of BOTH of them) from LW’s partner that he isn’t ready to make – is for them both to move away, far away, from the whole lot. I don’t see it as feasible. 😦
LW, I’m glad you have left behind the previous abusive relationship and I admire your tenacity in sticking with your partner through all of this so far.
I think the issue of people coming into your home like that is the thing that alarms me the most here. That entire story made me ill. If your partner can’t agree that both of you should feel safe in your own home, that’s a really bad sign about how he’s going to continue dealing with his family. If your safety in your own apartment is less important to him than catering to his horrible family/friends, I doubt there’s any way to save this relationship. I hope I’m wrong, but you have over 5 years of evidence of how this will play out, and it’s not promising.
This. Abusive relationships get us all out of calibration as far as what constitutes good treatment. There was a time in my life where my standard of bad behavior was “yelling at me until I cried, and then continuing for at least half an hour more”. Any guy who didn’t do that was therefore treating me well and respecting me. It took a really long time to re-calibrate myself, and to be able to tell the difference between “respecting me” and “not abusing me”.
The blaming and name-calling and gaslighting aren’t okay. Those are all ways of actively treating you badly. Not nearly as badly as your previous partner did, granted. You don’t have to call it abuse if you don’t want to, but you do need to know — really, deep-down know — that they’re not okay, and that he needs to stop if you’re going to stay with him. How confident are you at this point that he would stand up for and protect your children if his father started screaming at them?
Maybe his family will never get better. Maybe he will never be able to fully stand up to them on his own behalf or on yours. But here’s something you could say to him: “Fiance, I know that we don’t agree about your family. We don’t have to agree. I’m not asking you to take my side against them. What I am asking you to do is not to take their side against me. Don’t call me a bitch. Don’t tell me it’s all my fault. Don’t tell me that I somehow “made” a grown man yell at me. That’s all I’m asking you for.”
Absolutely this. Anyway who made me feel unsafe or like I didn’t have a right to my own home (and to not hear people verbally abuse me while in my home without my consent) would either get booted out of my home or find themselves paying rent alone. LW, YMMV but this is a HUGE red flag.
And honestly, there is no way to persuade/logic someone into not gaslighting you. While some gaslighting is deliberate and calculated, a lot of it is borne of someone’s need to see hirself/hir family as a certain kind of person/family (like my father and mother). Attempt to deconstruct this worldview from without usually sets off Defensive Perimeter Alarms that produce MORE gaslighting. These kinds of things must be dismantled from within. If the Captain’s steps in talking to your partner don’t work in helping your partner examine his own reactions, there isn’t much you can do, and continuing to try to change him is only leading you down the “if only I could explain it JUST RIGHT” road, which is just as unfair and ineffective in this situation as it is when it comes to sexual assault, or breakups (“if you had just rejected him the RIGHT WAY”). Whether you stay or leave, have children or not, it is time for you to draw some major boundaries for yourself around this behavior that you very correctly identify as gaslighting. That shit is NOT COOL.
I just wanted to say, it took me SO LONG to figure that out. That gaslighting and etc isn’t just Something Evil-Bad-People do, but it’s also something that People do and they won’t even realize they’re doing it because that’s the way they see the world. I would always be telling myself, “Oh, it’s not gaslighting because he doesn’t MEAN to do it, it’s not abuse because he’s not a terrible evil person intentionally manipulating me into being less than I am, everything that’s going on is sad but it’s not abuse because he doesn’t *mean it*! He honestly believes that his reality is the real one and the stuff I’m saying happened isn’t true and I’m imagining it, if it was gaslighting then he would be doing it on purpose! He’s not being emotionally abusive he just doesn’t know what he wants and he’s been so messed up from his previous relationships he can’t help acting this way. If it were abuse then he’d be a bad person and he’d be trying to abuse me, but he’s such a sweet guy except for this one thing that he’s not trying to do, it just happens and he can’t help it!”
Except it was gaslighting and it was emotional abuse, and just because he didn’t start out with the evil intention of abusing me and just because he didn’t realize he was gaslighting me and just because I thought he was a real sweet caring guy who I loved so much, that doesn’t make it not gaslighting and not abuse. I’m sorry if I’m just stating the obvious or rehashing stuff that’s been rehashed so often it’s more re than hash, but it was a real stumbling block for me! I had this love-blob in my head that was telling me that he can’t be emotionally abusing me because he loves me and he hates hurting me and I’ve seen how upset it made him when he made me sad, so it can’t be abuse! Abuse is done by Evil People for Evil Reasons and he wasn’t Evil, so clearly he wasn’t abusing me and I couldn’t let myself see what it was (spoiler: it was abuse). It wasn’t until he broke up with me that I clued in, “oh my god how did I let this happen? Worse, how did I not realize what was going on?!”
Ack, giant wordlumps I apologize for being kind of incomprehensible right now and repeating-myself-ish, my brain’s all in kind of a jumble right now. I’ve never actually tried to put this realization into words before, though it happened more than a year ago. It’s kind of hard to try to write down something you’ve been feel-thinking for a while without managing to word-think it properly. And it isn’t any easier at three thirty in the morning. Jeez, is that really the time? I have work tomorrow! Cripes!
I totally understand. Captain Awkward letters often do that to me too. I read a letter/comments, resonate with the message, and realize that I have never been able to put that feeling into words before – and usually it’s something important, where having words for it has helped. Jedi hugs for you if you want them.
Redbird, your comment is spookily relevant for me right now. You make perfect sense, I don’t think you’re rehashing or repeating, and you’ve given me a horrible-but-necessary epiphany. Thank you.
Redbird, thank you for this. I’ve been living this for 18 years. He’s sweet, he’s smart, he’s so into me, and he loves me dearly. He never wants to hurt me — but he’s abusive nonetheless. I’ve been putting up with his particular brand of BS for too long, and I’m finally getting smart enough (or fed up enough) to put a stop to it. Change is scary, but I’m already feeling so much better since he moved out. (Six weeks without a panic attack! Go me!)
Thank you for this: there is no way to persuade/logic someone into not gaslighting you. I’m dealing with the aftermath of an abusive friendship and so much here has helped me. This is another piece in the puzzle for me.
LW, I am so sorry you’re going through this.
I had a boyfriend once where I think we had a similar dynamic. He helped me leave an abusive home life and gave me someone to lean on while I worked out the dynamic with my parents. I loved him to pieces and we were engaged. About a year and a half into our relationship, he revealed a huge, glaring flaw– he killed two people. Oh not in an “on purpose, I’m going to axe murder you sort of way” but in a “I’m going to get drunk and high and negligent” sort of way. And what do you do with that? I mean, here is someone that I love and someone to whom I owe so much and have so much time and investment in. And this situation– it’s not something that he did TO me or AT me and he’s hurting from it too.
But you know there was a lot of fallout from the incident. Oh, for the first year I was go-go-go and supportive and helpful. But once the first crisis had passed and I came up for air, there were a lot of neon, glaring problems. He had developed a substance abuse issue, his family expected me to deal with it and him on my own, he handed off all of his guilt and emotions and mess to me. I didn’t break up with him, but what I did amounted to much the same thing. I took a “this belongs to you” approach. I stopped acting like a go-between and made him deal with his family directly. I refused to speak to him or see him if he was drunk or high. When he displaced his emotions onto me, I mirrored them back. And he left me. It hurt like hell and I was a mess for a good long while afterwards, but it was the right decision for him and for me.
So, that would be my advice to you. This stuff with his family, it doesn’t belong to you–it belongs to them. It would benefit both you and your relationship with him to take a hiatus from family time. He won’t like it. I have a shrewd notion that he likes having you there in the middle because you deflect a lot of his family’s evil energies from him onto you. But being the deflector shield also prevents him from having to deal with it directly because it’s on you, not on him. So, don’t go and don’t discuss it in painful detail with him– if he tries to hand family stuff off on you, mirror it back. It’s not cruel or malicious. If he comes home from a family event and starts saying, “Dad said XYZ evil things to me/about me/about you.” Your new set of replies are going to be along the lines of, “What are you going to do about it?”
I just get the feeling that your situation, like mine is one of those things that you can’t fix it and you can’t stand it. He’s got to decide what to do with it, and he’s not going to for as long as you are sitting in the middle of it. So give it back to him and wait and see for another 3-6 months to see what he does with it.
I love this comment, and the whole “this belongs to you” attitude. It put into simple words something I’ve been feeling and hinting at for a while, namely, that you don’t have to take on other people’s negative emotions as your own and process everything with (and for) them.
Can you tell me how you do the mirroring? Is it just like in the example you gave – that you give a non-committal “What are you going to do about it?” answer? Descriptions appreciated.
A lot of the time he wanted me to feel guilty. You understand, a lot of what I said and did was because I had a very good therapist, not because I understood what was going on at the time. Now I grasp that he wanted me to feel guilty because he didn’t want to feel guilty or because misery loves company. So, I asked a lot of questions. A conversation might go like this…
Him– You never liked *names of dead boys* anyway, you’re glad that they’re gone.
Me– How did you come to that conclusion?
Him– You’re not… *splutter* Well, you didn’t like me hanging around them.
Me– Why didn’t I like you hanging around them?
Him– Because you’re an uptight bitch and you never want to do anything fun (or some similar nonsense)
Basically, he would make conclusions about what I was thinking or feeling that weren’t true. Rather than get defensive and “I AM NOT!!”, my therapist just asked me to ask him to explain why he thought I felt that way and to really try to get him to give me concrete things I said or did to lead him to those conclusions. Now, I am fairly certain that she didn’t tell me to ask him these things for his sake. I think she wanted me to see that he’s making baseless accusations that even he didn’t particularly believe so that I’d have an easier time not internalizing everything he said.
When you are being gaslighted, asking why and how will generally show either flawed reasoning very quickly or the person doing the gaslighting will try to deflect the conversation. So asking why and how is a way to try to keep your balance and keep from internalizing all of these flawed messages.
Thank you! I will try to implement it.
I should also say that my default response to a statement like “You never liked *names of dead boys* anyway, you’re glad that they’re gone.” would be guilt that I had given off that impression or worry that people thought I felt that way. And I’d get defensive and things would devolve from there.
That totally works! I’ve done that (unknowingly) with people who make statements or accusations so baseless the only thing to do is to calmly ask them to back up their ridiculousness with facts. (though I’ve always done this from a “it’ll be amusing to watch you prove yourself wrong and it’ll only be infuriating for me to try to prove a negative.”)
This whole comment is amazing advice. I particularly like the phrase “mirror it back”, to mean rejecting misplaced responsibility back to the truly responsible person. I’m going to start using this for myself. Both to remind myself I can’t solve other people’s problems and no one can solve mine.
Yes, yes, yes! I agree with this SO much: “This stuff with his family, it doesn’t belong to you–it belongs to them.”
I have been actively been working on this stuff with my partner (let’s call him Partner) and his mother for about a year now, including my own long-running therapy and (at long last) couple’s therapy too.
For me, refusing to take the family stuff on as my own issue takes several forms. One of them is refusing to play go-between in really obvious ways, which are nonetheless insidious. So if Partner’s Mother says to me, “Partner hasn’t called his aunt recently,” I say, “I would ask Aunt to ask Partner about that directly.” If Partner’s Mother says to me, “Why doesn’t Partner understand that I need more affection?” I say, “Huh. I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Partner about that directly?” It also means not getting upset with Partner for being mean to his mother, or vice versa. It’s their relationship that they both choose, not mine. I have separate relationships with both Partner and Partner’s Mother, and realizing that — and implementing it by refusing to be dragged into the middle — was a huge, HUGE relief.
It also means cutting down my time with Partner’s Family to a bare, bare minimum, because Partner and his mother are so terrible to each other so much of the time, which makes life pretty unpleasant. He thinks it’s a normal relationship, which quite frankly scares the bejeezus out of me.
I should also note that while the all of the above has made my own situation livable with Partner’s Family, it has come hand in hand with the realization that I might be a lot happier without Partner himself in my life.
That was brilliant! I wish I’d had this perspective YEARS ago! Thank you.
I am really and truly sorry for both you, LW, and your partner. This just sounds like a hellish situation. I, sadly, am in possession of a Family With Issues (though to a far lesser degree than this), and I can only say – they suck. For everyone involved, they really really suck. There’s also only the very smallest chance that his family will ever change their behaviour – it’s very likely, from my experience, that they either don’t know what they’re doing is unforgivable, or just don’t care.
I know you said your partner is very resistant to couple’s therapy, but I think that might be the answer here. Can you find yourself a therapist who also does couple’s therapy? You definitely need someone to discuss this with, and perhaps this way you could phrase the couple’s therapy discussion more as a ‘I would love for you to come chat with my therapist and me about some stuff, because it would really help me’. Either way, your therapist can give you some advice on how to approach that subject with your husband.
Some questions that it might be useful to ask him: Assuming your family aren’t likely to change, how do you see our relationship with them working out long term? If we had kids, would you be OK with things staying the way they are? If my family were behaving this way to you, how would you want me to behave in response to that?
These are not going to be easy conversations, but, frankly, it’s been 5 and a half years. If easy conversations were going to make things better, I don’t think you’d be asking Captain Awkward this question. Maybe some tough conversations need to happen.
Good luck, LW. I really hope stuff works out for you guys.
It sounds like you’re suggesting the LW try to get her fiance into couples therapy through the back door, by asking him to see her therapist to help her. That strikes me as kind of dishonest and boundary-violating.
LW’s fiance has the right not to do therapy until he’s ready. That doesn’t mean LW has to live with him and his therapy-refusing ways – she can leave – but she doesn’t get to force or trick him into it.
I don’t think it’s a trick, I think it’s “See someone yourself who is YOUR therapist, get a little solid ground under your feet, and then ask him again if he’d be willing to go with you.” If she kidnaps him, it’s a trick. If she tells them they are going for dinner at The Plaza and then oh surprise, it’s a therapist’s office, and there is no souffle, THEN it’s a trick.
If he says “fuck no, I already told you I’m not doing that,” it’s one more really good reason to leave him.
Off the main point, but not all therapists will want to see a client’s partner if the sessions didn’t start off as couples therapy. The first therapist I saw about my messed-up relationship said she’d be happy to accept my boyfriend as a client if he and I were both comfortable with that. (She also would’ve been happy to do couples counseling, but he’s housebound and she didn’t make house calls.) My current therapist would be happy to talk to my boyfriend just to get his perspective, but doesn’t feel it would be fair to him to accept him as a client, since she’s already established a relationship with me.
Just something to ask up front if it’s important to you. Of course, you can also have a therapist just for you and another one for both of you.
Yeah, I know, I tried to rephrase that a few times to avoid that impression. I was hoping for a ton way more like the Captain’s answer below. Often, phrasing difficult things as ‘if you can do this FOR ME it will really help me and maybe you’ can be more useful than ‘I WANT YOU TO GO TO COUPLES THERAPY BECAUSE YOU’RE SCREWED UP’. I’m not saying the latter is what the LW is saying, but often it’s what you hear when someone suggests you go to therapy.
I think he’s probably also using his family as a proxy for his own emotional abuse (sorry, LW, but that’s what I’d call repeated references to what a bitch you are). He’s letting them badmouth you so he doesn’t have to do it himself.
From a therapist’s perspective: it’s normally not-really-done to move from individual therapy to couples’ therapy. Some will do it, but basically, the therapist has to pick who their alleigance is to. A couples therapist is almost always there for the sake of the relationship, and sometimes making the relationship work requires sacrifices from the people in it that are really hard. An individual therapist cares about their client, and may encourage them to pursue individual health at the cost of the relationship.
So doing individual therapy, and then pulling in the partner, means the therapist EITHER has to do the awkward “I don’t know who I’m rooting here for” dance, or goes, “Okay, boyfriend: we’re here to help out your partner. This is about you contributing to her mental health.”
The latter is something I like, myself–it’s a form of Team You building–if it’s done consensually. But it, or the former, is not like real couples counselling, and may not be a reasonable substitute.
When my therapist and I invited my parents to come to therapy with me, it had two purposes. One was to meet my parents and get some perspective of them as human beings, not just objects of my descriptions, and the other was to elucidate and air out our conflicting perceptions of our relationships. My therapist made sure to ask my parents about their perceptions of altercations with me (coaching them to use non-blaming “I” language, and sometimes rewording what they said to make it clearer to me), and did the same with my perceptions. It wasn’t really helpful, but that was because my parents continue to place all the blame for the problems in our relationships on me. It was, however, the point at which I realized that no matter how nicely or intellectually or fairly I told them how I felt, nothing would ever change until they were ready to change themselves. It was the start of me freeing myself.
Some therapists may do the awkward dance, but a therapist’s job is often to dig out underlying belief systems, clear up mucky communication, and support someone’s emotions while inviting them to consider other perspectives. Training on dealing with multiple people probably for sure helps, but an individual therapist can do a decent job, if zie sees the above as hir job in that situation – not the challenge someone’s viewpoint or to “make rules” for the two people, or help one person “win,” but to help clear up what everyone is thinking and feeling about the situation.
Thank you for that – I was wondering whether it was feasible or not. On the other hand, if she really can’t persuade her boyfriend to do couple’s therapy, perhaps the imperfect alternative of having him attend her therapy is worth it anyway?
This is more to the purpose of the latter request, for stories of leaving a Big Serious Important Relationship and living to tell a happier tale. LW, my Big Serious Important Partner was even a gaslighter, like yours.
One day, I was weeping into a lab computer and telling my woe to a good ladyfriend, and I said despairingly that I would never meet anyone as good for me as BSIP was.
She hesitated. “I… don’t think that’s true,” she said.
I may have even told this story here before, because that one little counternarrative totally blew my world open. In all the stories I was telling myself about what was going wrong in our relationship, the central theme was that the Things Going Wrong were attacking my Good Relationship, wedging themselves between me and the love of my life. I was shocked to discover–through reflection following this conversation, and through therapy–that in fact my BSIP was one of the Things Going Wrong, that his own choices and behaviors were wedged between me and the love I thought we could have.
LW, your partner is one of the Things Going Wrong here. It is entirely possible that the two of you can set things right. But I will tell you anyway that while he might be the one who taught you how to have better relationships, and he may even be the best partner you have yet had, he is by no means the best partner you will ever have. Period. (Even if the better partner you eventually have is also him, after learning what gaslighting is and consciously choosing not to do it again.)
After I broke up with BSIP two and half years ago, I dated a few men casually and a few men more seriously. By and large–because I knew what to look out for–these men were kind, thoughtful, good communicators. If they turned out not to be, we stopped dating. When there wasn’t a kind, thoughtful, good-communicating man around that I wanted to date, I didn’t date anybody.
All of these circumstances have been better for my mind and body than dating someone who would rather let me treated like shit than set better boundaries for himself and for us.
I’m new to this site, brought here by much sharing of the “Creepy Dude” letters within the online communities I frequent. I just wanted to say that this reply resonated with me and reminded me of a similar comment that helped me get over an ex (not an emotionally abusive situation, just a relationship I had a really hard time letting go of). A mutual friend simply said to me, “I always thought you could do better”. This simple statement helped me in so many ways.
As I was reading this letter, I kept thinking “it might be fine if her partner has her back. The partner needs to have her back.”
And then I got to the part about the name-calling (bitch? really now?), gaslighting, blaming, and my heart just sank. That doesn’t sound like respect. It makes me really sad.
“It’s not all sunshine and roses (what relationship is?) but we’ve built a solid, great thing based on mutual respect …
“Really, what I want to know is: how do I convince him to stop gaslighting me, making me believe that I’m the whole problem and that his social circle are the unwilling victims of my bitchitude?”
Those two lines? Do not mesh at all.
It’s one thing to have a partner with a terrible family (and friends!); it’s another thing if your partner is enabling and siding with them against you. I mean, obviously I’m not privy to the good parts of the relationship, or other ways he interacts with you that make you say you have mutual respect and a solid relationship. People don’t usually write in about the fantastic, solid, no-problems side of their relationships. Just: gaslighting and calling you a bitch is in no world a sign of respect.
Relationships are not going to be all sunshine and roses, no. But there should at least be more sunshine than rain, and maybe a flower or two throughout the year. I’m thinking Bay Area weather, perhaps, or maybe a Mid-Atlantic summer.
Agreed, absolutely. I read the whole three times trying to figure out where the ‘mutual respect’ part of the relationship was. I couldn’t find it.
LW, I worry because you say he’s something special to have been so patient with you while you undergo your healing from sexual abuse. I, too, have been in sexually abusive relationships (starting when I was 5) and I also spent a lot of time thinking my husband was some kind of saint for putting up with my shit while I got better.
It took me a long time to figure out that that’s what any halfway decent person is *supposed* to do. It should be a *given.* And I spent a lot of time excusing the shitty-ass things he did (like cheat on me) by thinking that he was such a Nice Guy for being patient with me. I even thought that he was respecting my need for boundaries regarding sex by getting his needs met with other women even though he was breaking our rules. I totally made up excuses for him in my head because he honestly, genuinely, was the best person to ever happen to me. Ever. At that point.
Then he had sex with a friend of mine at a party we were throwing in my house. The whole party got to listen as they fucked on our bed and oh, I just realized that the wet spot he left meant he hadn’t been using a condom, either. Thank god I never slept with him again. It became clear to me that he didn’t give a damn about me, my boundaries, or the rules of our relationship. Anyway, I was completely humiliated and only the fact that my friends genuinely love me kept me together.
I left home, became homeless for 4 months, and put my life back together. I met a much, much, much better man. I am happy now.
My family is the Family From Hell. When I told Mom that Dad had molested me, she hung up on me and then called me back to yell at me for burdening her with the information. That’s just a sample. When my boyfriend and I go to visit her, she belittles me. My boyfriend stands up for me. I stand up for me. We’ve had to leave to reinforce that belittling me is not ok. It’s made the belittling go down a lot. I had to wade through some of “why are you being such a bitch?” from her for a while, but I stuck to my guns and it went away. I learned to turn “why are you being such a bitch?” into “why are you making it so hard for me to hurt you at my every whim?” in my head.
You can stay with him. If you do so, learn how to rewrite what they say in your head, and walk out the door when you need to. You can only protect yourself. Even your boyfriend can’t protect you from them – he can only help. And it will suck for a year or two, but then it could get better.
“It took me a long time to figure out that that’s what any halfway decent person is *supposed* to do. It should be a *given.*”
Yes, exactly. LW, whether you decide to stay or to leave, remember that YOU are the one who did the hard work of leaving your previous relationship. YOU are the one who did the hard work of healing yourself. His patience and support through that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for setting and enforcing boundaries with his family.
Shoot. I had a comment in here somewhere that got eaten.
The real kicker, for me is this sentence: “It’s really hard to admit that the people you love are awful.” The LW meant it to refer to his family – but really, truly? It also applies to her boyfriend. If he’s gaslighting her, if he’s walking off in a huff, he’s blaming her for provoking it? He;s exhibiting the exact same behavior as his family. It is hard to admit – but at some point, you have to accept that the boyfriend is just as awful as the fam.
THIS resonates sooooo much.
The thing is, and I don’t mean to sound like an abuse apologist, he might not be awful. Immediately concluding that he is is a little like jumping right in with the DTMFA. He might be a largely good person with a bad sector, and every file in the damaged sector is corrupt. But if the damaged sector is small and the rest of the system architecture is stable, it can be worked around. On the other hand, if it’s not a damaged sector but a virus, then it can’t. (I need sleep, so my apologies if my metaphor sucks.)
In other words: if fiance is always going to be shitty to LW about his family, than his family needs to disappear from her life and their shared life, and she can keep the non-awful majority of him. If he can’t do that, or if the abusive language & behavior start to spread, it may be beyond saving.
I’m saying this as a person who has someone in my life (not a romantic partner) who is approximately 95% awesome and 5% awful. The really important bit is that The Awful is never directed at me, but The Awesome frequently is. My life is better for having zie in it.
The only way I can see this working out is if LW’s parter entirely supports her in cutting his shitty family out of her life – not necessarily his own. She is never pressured to visit them, they are never invited to visit her home, they never phone her, and if they turn up at the door he will not answer it. No gossip from them is relayed to her. If finances permit, money is set aside specifically for her to do something enjoyable when he visits them. If and when they marry, shitty family are not invited. The couple talk over what to do if they have kids regarding whether and how the kids will meet the grandparents, and when and if kids arrive, they stick to the agreed rules.
This gives her clear boundaries and a safe living space without cutting him off from them. Unfortunately the impression I get from the letter is he will just blame her for not getting along, and make excuses for them, but I hope I’m wrong.
Right, and if he never, ever, ever blames her for not being nice enough to them to keep them from calling her a dirty ugly stupid annoying lesbian ho, for the love of Christ.
I mean, I hate to say it, but this isn’t exactly a boundary-setting problem. Her boyfriend isn’t just letting his family walk all over her–he’s helping them tie their cleats. He’s part of this abusive family. He’s repeating their criticisms and mimicking their demeaning actions.
LW, you need to enforce some boundaries with him, as well. If he won’t cooperate with the Get Them to Shut Up and Leave You Alone program, then you need to tell him that he needs to stop insulting you and treating you cruelly, or you’ll distance yourself from him.
Like you, I’m pessimistic. But if there is hope, it lies in the Get Them To Shut Up And Leave You Alone Program.
Yes, or to turn it around a bit: in a way, the problem isn’t the awful family. The problem is how the LW’s partner behaves as the interface between the LW and the family. His partner needs to have her back and insulate her from any awfulness or even simply poor behavior. But if he’s not only incapable of doing so but also actually blames her for friction, I don’t see how the relationship can be a successful or happy one; because how can you have a successful, happy relationship with someone who doesn’t think you’re an amazing, awesome person?
Sometimes I experience friction with my in-laws, although this is orders of magnitude more minor–really small potatoes by comparison to the LW. But one thing I love and appreciate very much about my husband is that, without ceasing to love his parents, he’s able to identify any annoying or uncomfortable behavior and, more importantly, he completely insulates me from it. And generally, he is the interface when negotiating any potentially sticky or inconvenient issues. He talks with them if there’s discussion or arrangements to be made; if we need to go visit a family member, he deals with that and makes sure it’s not an imposition; if I have an issue I’m not sure how to handle, he talks with them about that and is always very clear that I shouldn’t take any concerns onto myself.
LW, if the two of you are a team, there is a lot you can handle in this fashion, and you can develop shared strategies for his horrible family. But essentially it sounds as if your partner is not on your team, and I’m really not sure how you can work with that. (P.S. I agree with the commenter who said that gaslighting is a character flaw. Or really it’s a morality flaw. You’re not the first to mention a gaslighting partner almost as an aside, but I have a really hard time understanding how it’s possible to feel any trust in a relationship when a partner finds it OK to violate one’s personal sense of truth and reality.)
Yeah. And, well, I don’t see his behavior as an extension of theirs. I think he’s being mean to her in his own right. His family atmosphere is probably originally responsible for that, and is certainly aggravating that, but…well, the separate-relationships thing goes both ways.
THIS. I am unfortunately the one with the Terrible Parents–when I told my mother I was dating CB (my partner), she went on a tirade about his race and class and how could I be so selfish and do this to her before she even asked me what his name was. It’s not pleasant, but a lot of what I have been doing in the past few years or so is working out my own boundaries between me and my parents. CB has been very encouraging about this, but I had a very difficult time figuring out how I was going to deal with both parents and CB in my life until I started more proactively managing the parents.
We haven’t been together for long (year and a half), and my parents are thousands of miles away, which makes things easier. Mostly I have made it a policy to always present the two of us as a unit: if parents don’t like him, sucks for them, but then they’re not going to see much of me either. Also, outside of mother’s initial awful rant, I don’t much let them talk about him. I mostly present the “everything is happy and rosy” side because given how my parents have behaved, they don’t get the privilege of knowing how my relationship is. So when CB has interacted with my family, I think they are pretty clear that they need to be polite or I just talk to them even less than I do. This was pretty hard, because to get to this point, I basically had to give up on hoping that my parents would accept me as who I am and like me on my own terms. It was either close familial relationship with no respect for who I am, or polite and distant acquaintance-type relationship, and I chose the latter.
LW, I’m not sure if it’s possible to get your partner on board with this, given his current attitude about you and his family. I also don’t think he has to cut off his family, but he does need to shield you from them and make it clear to his family that he is on your side. And unfortunately, I think a lot of it will be work on his part, not yours, because the main issues are how he deals with his family and how he lets them deal with (hopefully) cherished parts of his life.
YES. They should essentially go into the closet where his family is concerned. Maybe not full on girlfriend-in-Canada, but she should get to not exist in their world.
And, if she is wanting to meld genes in the future, this agreement has to specifically and with great discussion include future children.
It turned out I wasn’t considered Family before we had our son, so I was not subjected to any of the family shit. And then we had a baby and all the family expectations/pressures/Time Spent Together landed on us because everyone thinks we owe the grandparents Grandchild Time. Also all holidays became meaningful traditions i had to go to!
I would try forcing him to commit to all the things he’s saying. So if he says “You were such a bitch to all my friends,” you say, “Do you really think they were right to have a party in our apartment behind our backs?” or “Do you really think I created that bad situation?” or “Was it my fault that that I was sick?” or “Do you really agree with all those things they said about me?”
If he says yes then HOLY SHIT the abuse alarms just got louder. If he says no, which sounds more likely, then you can say something like “Then can you please stop taking their side” or “Then please have my back on this” or “Then shouldn’t you be confronting them and not me right now?”
It sounds like the next phase of this conversation is him saying, “I know that intellectually, but it doesn’t feel that way emotionally.” He is trained by his family to be reactive and blamey rather than rational and compassionate. He needs to be retrained. I would say something like: “I know you love me and you know these things are not my fault, but you are acting like they are. From now on, if you are having an emotional reaction that something is my fault, I would like you to keep it to yourself until you have thought it over rationally and talked to your therapist about it, and you are sure that it’s really fair to blame it on me. I love you and I want to help you get over your abuse, but the way we do it now is too hurtful.”
Another way would be to ask him to use phrases like “I’m feeling that this is your fault and you’re just too bitchy, but I’ll have to think it over and figure out if that’s really true.” This allows him to vent his emotions while keeping them in their own little destructive box. I like the other way better just because it protects you more, it’s more enforceable, and there’s less chance of it slipping back into the status quo.
I don’t want to pile on about leaving your fiance, but try imagining these two scenarios: it’s five years from now, and you and a good friend meet up for coffee. She asks you about your love life.
Scenario A: “Well, I finally broke it off with so-and-so. He was amazing and wonderful and really helped me work through my sexual abuse, but in the end there was too much emotional abuse left over from his family life. But I will always be grateful to him for the relationship we had.”
Scenario B: “Well, married life with so-and-so is still a little rocky, but I’m so in love with him. We’re slowly disentangling from his horrible abusive family, which is stressful. Have you seen our adorable baby pictures?”
Both best-case scenarios, of course, and it sounds like you’re committed to Scenario B. Just don’t lose sight of the fact that Scenario A would also be okay, and a testament to the strength and lovingness and success of your relationship– even if it ends. You can love someone without spending the rest of your life with them and their family.
This two-scenario suggestion is what helped me leave the guy before the impotent guy. This is a beautiful thing. I was so invested in making Scenario B be OK with me that I never considered Scenario A, until it was presented just so.
“Would you rather have the braised lamb with artichoke risotto for dinner, or would you rather have this manky boot with rusty staples in it?”
“Are there any specials tonight?”
“Not for you, you don’t deserve anything special, you frigid harpy.”
Ha ha! Welcome to the Restaurant of Terrible Relationships. It has gas lighting and an extensive whine list.
Thank you, I needed that shrieking gigglefit. 😀
A+++ would dine again
No reservations necessary. Hours: FOREVER, IF YOU LEAVE ME I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’LL DO.
I have some reservations.
“Pity, party of two, your table is ready!”
“Extensive whine list” AHAHAHA glorious. Thank you
This is wonderful.
MisPrism, that gem just reminded me exactly why I was so happy a few days ago when I noticed you commenting here!
*back to lurking, waiting for moar*
Oh that’s so awesome!! 🙂
i love you people. /wipes away giggle-tear
And you know what? I trained a defensive, passive-aggressive, undermining, gaslighting boyfriend (who was also so funny I nearly peed my pants on a regular basis, so: wonderful in some ways, and… not so much in others) to mostly stop all that crap shit. It didn’t really start for a few months, because that’s how that works, and then after it started it took I think a year or so to really improve dramatically, though when he was stressed out about something (related to me or not) it would get worse again and I’d have to call him on it again. It required serious behavior modification training work, just like I do with the cats and the dog: I had to point out the bad behavior EVERY TIME, and in the moment so he could notice he was doing it, because otherwise he wasn’t aware of it; and we had to have several Serious Talks that got past the defensiveness so he would understand he was wrong to act that way and how it affected me; and he had to honestly care to treat me better. It got a lot better.
I could know that the things he was doing and saying were crap; I could point them out and either I’d stand up for myself and we’d argue or he was learning and noticing and he would back down and apologize; and there was honest, real improvement. And despite all that, and despite my self-confidence and true belief that his words in a defensive moment were total bullshit, something about repeatedly hearing undermining words (that I thought I disagreed with throughout) from someone I loved and spent a lot of time with still got under my skin. I didn’t even realize it had happened until after the relationship was long over and I realized I had somewhere developed all these new insecurities that I didn’t have 4 or 5 years ago.
It wasn’t worth it. You shouldn’t have to train someone to be respectful. That’s not good love. Even if he was “patient” with you about something every basically decent human being would be understanding about with someone they loved, or even if you peed your pants laughing every day (dude: the laundry that involves), it is not. worth it.
I am having sadfeels about this, volcanista! 😦
It is okay! It ended, what, four years ago or so, and I had a spot of therapy about this but mostly for other things, and then a few key friends and random folks said “…what?” at a few key moments and helped fix my head again. So this is pretty much all retrospective now. Now I will Teach The World from my errors! (Of which there are so very many.)
Main lesson from this particular error: Some people really are overall decent human beings who care about others and have good intentions and are just damaged and insecure and handle their feelings poorly, and they can improve and learn and heal and be wonderful people. The Nice Guys aren’t altogether wrong about that! And strong, confident folks who recognize bullshit for bullshit without believing it can sometimes help with that! But just because you CAN retrain someone’s brain doesn’t mean you should, and you certainly never are under any obligation to. (Unless I suppose you are a brain-retraining professional who has agreed to try that, which means NOT a friend, family member, or romantic partner.) Well-intentioned people who want to become better people can hire one of those professionals and fix that shit themselves if they want to; and pointing it out to them so they know they could use the improvement is a nice courtesy. And then you can (should) leave. Do not trust your subconscious to believe the logical things your awake brain believes.
something about repeatedly hearing undermining words (that I thought I disagreed with throughout) from someone I loved and spent a lot of time with still got under my skin.
Volcanista, that half-sentence was really useful to me to read right now. Thank you. (Different situation, but reading that helped me put something about it into words.)
“You shouldn’t have to train someone to be respectful. That’s not good love.”
THIS. Oh so much this. How did I lose sight of this?? ** le sigh **
My partner and I have been together for 10+ years. We are both male; his family is LDS. My partner’s family has been through some really hard times together, including him, and I realize it’s hard to just walk away from the support network of people who understand. However, his family is always trying to get us to go to Mormon singles nights, when they’re not being casually racist and sexist.
I did exactly as Captain Awkward mentioned:my partner says, “Oh, he can’t be here today, but he says hello.” They don’t have my phone number, my e-mail address, or my Facebook.
Early on, I contemplated moving. It would have been a lot of work, but if LW’s partner is also tired of his family’s bullshit and is too loyal to cut them off, perhaps just putting some distance in would help. Then he can be a part of his family through phone calls and Facebook and occasional visits, but LW will be far from their poisonous influence.
There are ways to deal with your partner’s shitty family. Unfortunately, all of them require a non-abusive partner who takes your wellbeing seriously, doesn’t blame you for his family’s misbehavior, and doesn’t gaslight you.
You do not have this partner.
Your partner learned how to deal with people from a truly vile group of jerks, and he’s showing you how that looks. (This, by the way, will be how he treats his children, and how he teaches them to treat their partners and children.) While I agree that the partner’s family will probably never change, he really has to before he’s going to be a safe person. You don’t want to leave him, but the other good option is for him to change. If he’s in therapy, maybe you can ask if you can call his therapist or go to a session with him to discuss the family.
Right now, the best thing you can do for yourself is to change the locks. I’m not saying you dump your partner–just change the locks and give him a key. You need to be safe from the abusive relatives, at least, in your home. If your partner fights with you and demeans you over your need not to have people attacking you when you’re sick in bed, I don’t see this ending happily.
Although, honestly, anytime someone asks, “How do I stop my partner from gaslighting me?” I think it’ll probably end badly. Gaslighting isn’t a communication problem. It’s a character problem.
My mom gaslights me when she’s stressed. It’s like her brain defaults to, “I want you not to be saying that, so I will make it untrue.” I can call her on it and make her take it back, but it requires having conversations like a fencing match that last at least an hour. But she is learning, and we’re up to a week and a half in close proximity before we have a screaming argument.
Gaslighting is like the other person saying, “I don’t really want to have this conversation with you, I want to have it with someone who already agrees with me. The fact that I am having the former and not the latter is your fault.”
Oo, good spot – I forgot about the locks. Add to my list: the locks get changed straight away and nobody from the shitty family ever, ever gets a copy.
My fear is if the LW’s BF is as sabotaging as I think he is, he’ll just make copies and pass them around anyway. 😦
Hey LW. This part of your letter really caught my eye:
I was coming out of a sexually abusive relationship when I met him, and really, it shows me that he’s a truly special guy to be patient with me through all the healing I had to go through to get to the point where I could have a healthy relationship with anyone.
I have a story to tell you.
I dated a real jerk in high school. He was not nice to me. He was gaslighty and threw tantrums every time he made a mistake and generally was a jerk. My relationship with him, plus some other stuff from my childhood, made it really difficult for me to feel like I deserved to be loved. I felt like I had no value and no right to expect that anyone should be nice to me.
After I finished high school and moved away from my home town a few things happened. I had some therapy. I made some real friends. And I started dating this wonderful guy. He was kind and sweet and ethical and smart and generous. He said nice things to me and he called me on my bullshit in a non-assholish way. He was patient while I dealt with the aftermath of my previous relationship and he was just… nice. He was great and I loved him. I thought maybe we’d be together forever. But after some time I started to realize that our relationship wasn’t working for me. Now the not-working things weren’t nearly as bad as your not-working things. There was no abuse, no gaslighting, no blaming me for other people’s abuse of me. But there were some important things about our relationship that made me unhappy. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with him, he really was great. And it wasn’t that I didn’t love him, because I really did. But the relationship wasn’t working.
Eventually I came to a realization. Wonderful Guy was my first healthy relationship. I had sort of thought of it as something akin to my salvation, but it wasn’t. It was a baseline. Him being nice and kind and sweet to me wasn’t a reason for me to stay with him, it was the bare minimum entry requirement for a relationship. And I didn’t know. Maybe there were people out there who met that minimum requirement AND who I was more compatible with than Wonderful Guy. Maybe my relationship with WG was the best I could do. I didn’t know.
Breaking up with WG was the scariest thing I have ever done. I was taking a lot on faith. The idea that there were people out there, other people, who would be nice and kind and put up with my foibles and love me and be caring with me… that wasn’t something I was at all sure of. It was terrifying. I knew if I stayed with WG that he would keep being all those things. There were things about the relationship that didn’t work, sure, but here was someone who treated me well. I was taking it on faith that other people who would treat me well were out there, and that was fucking scary.
Breaking up with WG was also the hardest thing I have ever done. I cried like I have never cried before. I grieved for months. My life was one big cloud of sadness. It hurt like I was being torn in pieces. And I had to let myself feel all that.
But, finally, breaking up with WG was absolutely the best thing I could have done for myself. All that stuff I had taken on faith? It was true. There were other nice people out there. Life wasn’t a choice between this one nice guy or a bunch of abusers. I thought that I was happy with WG, and in many ways I was, but I am happy now in ways I never could have imagined then. I am loved and love in a way that truly works for me. I was scared that WG was my last chance. He wasn’t. He was the baseline. And the years I spent with him weren’t wasted. They were spent learning how to be in a healthy relationship. Both of us grew and improved during our time together and we are better people for it. But we don’t owe each other the rest of our lives as payment.
LW, your partner may be a wonderful guy, and he may have been patient and loving and all the rest. But that doesn’t mean you have to stay with him. And it doesn’t mean he’s your last or only hope at a healthy relationship. It’s terrifying to think that if you leave him you will end up stuck with someone like your abusive ex. I know. But that’s a false dichotomy. There is a whole world of non-abusers out there.
I think the captain’s advice about limiting contact with his family, making him the buffer, etc. is all really good. I’m not saying that you definitely can’t find a way to make this relationship work. What I’m saying is that if you can’t find a way, you can survive this breakup. You deserve to be treated well, and there are other people in the world who will treat you well and who you can have healthy relationships with.
“Both of us grew and improved during our time together and we are better people for it. But we don’t owe each other the rest of our lives as payment.”
THIS THIS THIS.
This comment definitely struck a chord with me, not because I was in the exact same situation, but because I know that FEELING so very well. I’ve had a combination of, “It’s either him or the assholes,” and, “All relationships take work, which is why I keep stressing myself to tears over this relationship.” And I think this is what the LW is dealing with right now–the idea that these problems are the typical relationship problems that happy relationships possess, and that this man saved her from a horrible time in her life, which makes him a good partner to stay with.
Often, we find ourselves in the sunk cost dilemma when it comes to relationships. We think, “But I’ve worked so hard and built this relationship, and if I end it, I will have wasted X years of my life.” You will not get this time back. But that’s not a reason to continue.
I know the LW doesn’t want to leave her partner. But I guess my question is–why not? There are people out there capable of great love who will not gaslight you. Who will stand up for you. Who will respect you–really respect you–when you speak up about something you’re unhappy about.
It can be VERY hard to realize that there are better people out there when you don’t know how a better relationship feels. The way I know I’m in a healthy, happy relationship now and wasn’t before is that my relationship is no longer a source of stress. I don’t find myself angry about how my partner is treating me, or stressed until I’m sick because I’m so anxious about bringing up something that’s been bothering me. That happened constantly in my last relationship, but it doesn’t happen at all in this one.
LW, at the very least, you need to find a therapist, you need to change your locks, and you need to have a long break from this evil family. But please consider your reasons for wanting to stay. It doesn’t sound like your partner is really all that wonderful to you, based on your own words.
Whenever I’m faced with a quandary about a relationship (can be work relationships, friend relationships, family relationships, romantic relationships, etc.) I’m not sure is going in a direction I’m happy with, I think about what that relationship does for me and my personal goal to be what I think of as my “best self.”
It’s hard to remember that you deserve to be able to be the best person you can be. Not that you SHOULD be the best person you can be, or that you MUST DO THIS all the time, but that you are a person who lives on Planet Earth who deserves the freedom to be an individual they are proud of being and who they want to be. If your relationships are keeping you from having this potential, or from believing you deserve this potential, it is time to consider reducing/modifying/African Violetting those relationships.
I don’t think relationships where you are gaslighted (gaslit?) or where you are asked to stifle/control/shutyerselfup/remove yourself so that other people can keep doing their abusive/harmful/mean/douchey behavior are facilitators of best selves. They are facilitators of people who are constantly self-evaluating, self-censoring, self-criticising; and thus the cycle continues: you aren’t your best self because the people around you keep telling you that you are the problem. How can you believe you deserve happiness/best selfness if you are bowing and scraping (and scapegoating) to/for others?
Obviously LW’s family does not allow LW to be her best self, and it sounds like LW’s partner believes he is not obligated to help her be her best self. But in my mind, what makes the best relationships is when everyone involved is mutually interested in helping everyone become their best selves. Calling someone a bitch is not a behavior of someone who wants to help his partner be her best self; it’s a behavior of someone who is satisfied with the status quo and who may suspect that a “best self” partner is one who is, well, not his partner.
Oh, and I wanted to add, in the spirit of extricating-oneself-from-crappy-situations-advice: for years I had an on-and-off relationship with a man who withheld things like “I love you’s” (classic: I care about you, I love you but I’m not IN LOVE with you, but please don’t leave me, I might change my mind!) and basic compliments/nice things you tell people you care about. I always thought that I could change this based on something I could do myself: lose weight, wear trendier clothes, like cooler things, stop “complaining,” etc. After every reuniting-post-breakup, he would be nice and loving and kind for a few weeks. Then, back to withholding. I always thought that because he could be nice and loving for a few weeks, I could totally change myself into making him this way all the time. I just had to TRY HARDER.
Then, after the 9th breakup (not kidding) I finally did the one thing I could do to change the way he treated me: I left this man, moved to another city, enrolled in a new graduate program and built a life with people who treated me like the best self I wanted to be and who they wanted me to be. When he tried to get back together with me for the 10th go-round, I was sorely tempted: maybe this time would be different! But I realized I was no longer in a relationship that required me to start and stop multiple letters to advice columnists, that had me hiding details from my closest friends, that had me second-guessing my every move based on how it might provoke my partner to act negatively toward me.
I know moving/grad school/new friends is basically “change your entire life so you can see how great things can be when you are not under pressure to perform constantly,” so it’s not the most tenable advice for most people, especially when finances are tight. But I also found that when I was not in this bad relationship, I was a better, harder worker who made more money and more networky-contacts because, again, I wasn’t under this huge relationship pressure at home. A significant part of my life was no longer this lingering, frightening question mark.
Can I just say that this bullshit: “I care about you, I love you but I’m not IN LOVE with you, but please don’t leave me, I might change my mind!” is a really good reason to break up with someone?
God, it’s so controlling. “I have some weird idea of love in my head that I can’t explain to you. I’ll know it when I see it. So far you’re not it. But keep doing everything you can to please me and make everything happen totally on my schedule and you just might unlock the True Love achievement! The prize? More This. With me!”
If I ever hear those words again from a dating partner, I think my fantasy answer will be “Well, I was thinking about being in love with you, but I wasn’t sure yet. After that speech it sounds like it would be a complete waste of time. Thanks for clearing it up so well!” and then getting the fuck out.
Sounds a lot like an ex of mine as well. We were on-again off-again for over 3 years. Then, during one of our “off” periods, he knocked up another girl and married her. He never was able to commit to me; now I know what it would have taken and I’m glad that didn’t happen! I am now very happily married to someone else.
This was my relationship’s script:
“Goodnight, I love you.”
“Augh, I don’t even know what love is or if I would feel it towards you!”
“Furthermore, you are holding me back from making other meaningful friendships and I would be better off if we weren’t together!”
“…okay, do you want to break up?”
“I don’t know! How would I know?”
“…okay, well we can break up if you want to, but I don’t want to.”
“Fine! Me neither, I guess!”
Warning: positively correlated with being clingy and mildly stalkery one you finally break it off.
SO RIGHT re: “positively correlated with being clingy and mildly stalkery one you finally break it off.” My ex-boyfriend would always reappear one-three months after I’d dumped him with some version of “Oh, I heard you were going through X, I just want to say that I’d love to see you and hear about X if I can help.”
And I repeatedly thought that was about him really missing me and wanting to help me (hence: 9 breakups/reunitings) instead of it being about him knowing I was a person he could depend on to emotionally manipulate once life got boring without someone to abuse all the time. I’m glad the 10th time was the charm, even if it was the 10th freaking time.
It’s a total power thing. Like he was mad I was the one to finally break it off. So he would do things like trap me at a restaurant 9 months after our breakup, with him as my only transportation, to talk about how amazing our relationship was and how much he misses me, culminating in him LITERALLY saying “I’m not entitled, I just think I deserve this.”
culminating in him LITERALLY saying “I’m not entitled, I just think I deserve this.”
That is the greatest summary of That Dude in the history of ever. I KNOW THIS WORD MEANS SOMETHING BAD SO THAT’S NOT WHAT I AM! BUT I DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW WHAT IT MEANS OR CARE.
The funny thing is, I’m an artist and poet and have gotten so much out of that one sentence that it damn near makes the 1.5 year relationship worth it.
Consider “I’m not entitled, I just think I deserve this” to be STOLEN.
If only he’d said it sooner, though!
“I’m not entitled, I just think I deserve this.”
I am so sorry about everything you had to go through to finally receive this beautiful gift of finely wrought fuckery, but thank you, on behalf of humanity, for passing it along.
… I think about what that relationship does for me and my personal goal to be what I think of as my “best self” … If your relationships are keeping you from having this potential, or from believing you deserve this potential, it is time to consider reducing/modifying/African Violetting those relationships.
What do you do when it’s just about impossible to be your best self in a particular relationship, but you feel that your best self would stick things out?
That’s going to depend on the circumstances. If, for example, Mr. Other Becky developed a serious health problem, the attendant stress would make it impossible for me to be my best self, but I would stick by him and do whatever it took. If a good friend is in serious distress and needs a lot of help, it’s possible that my best self would give more help than is currently good for me. In that case, I’d have to weigh the possible harm to my friend if I didn’t help to that extent or in that way against the possible harm to me.
Example: I am a great big introvert. I need my space, and lots of it. Mr. Other Becky and I have a friend who would be homeless if she weren’t living in our den. Is adding an extra person to our household good for me? No. Am I able to be my best self in these circumstances? No. Will I be relieved when she manages to find steady employment and save up enough for a deposit on an apartment? Hell yes. Now comes the important question: is the harm to me small enough for me to be reasonably okay? Yes, it is. If that weren’t the case, then our house would need to go from being her effective residence to being one of several places that she couch surfs.
Other example: I was once in a relationship with someone who was having a very difficult time with mental illness, as was I. At first, our relationship was stabilizing for both of us. However, it eventually became destabilizing for me. A me who was stable and healthy and okay might have continued the relationship. I elected not to. The harm to me was too great, and was taking me well below “reasonably okay”.
tl;dr It depends, based on degree and context.
I used to think that I’d be the kind of person who would stick it out in the face of an SO’s serious health problem. And I have, so far. Sadly, I suck at it, and the attendant stress makes it difficult to evaluate the relationship objectively. Could we deal with our other problems better if he weren’t so sick and I weren’t so resentful?
Of course, my boyfriend can’t choose to be free of his health problems. LW’s boyfriend (to bring this back around to the original topic) can choose to be nicer. Food for thought.
I do get that. The reason I say that I would definitely stick it out, as opposed to maybe or probably, isn’t because I wouldn’t have those same feelings. But we’re married, and we’re religious, and I take a sacramental and covenantal view of our marriage. So it probably was a bad example for me to bring up in the first place. The other two examples were better.
It was exactly the example I was looking for. 🙂 Not bad at all.
Hmm. I wrote a long comment about leaving an important relationship and the powerful hold that one’s first healthy relationship can have on one, and the reasons it can be okay to leave that relationship anyway, and it’s gone. Captain, can you please maybe check the spam filter? Unless you mod’ed it on purpose, in which case I respect that.
Yeah, there it was. Fucking spam filter, I do NOT know what it’s deal is lately.
It’s so angry about all the garbage it’s been swallowing, it tries for dessert when you’re not looking.
Looks like it (or WP) ate my comment too. Since I was mostly thumbs-upping another poster, it’s not a huge deal that the comment dies a quiet death. Still, boo WP/spam filter.
Hey Jake, I wasn’t logged in when WP ate my comment. Is it possible you weren’t logged in either? Could it be related to that somehow?
I don’t have a WP account, but WP remembers my name, email, and link on my computer.
OT: I was having major, repeated problems commenting while not logged in and using an email address that *used to be* attached to this account a long time ago. WordPress would then sequentially tell me first that the email address was already in use, so I would use it to request a password reset, and second that the email address was actually not in use. The email address I am *now* using to log in was the old mail-forwarding address for this account and it has been deleted for some time, but it’s working, so I can comment again.
Basically the database seems very, very confused about email addresses, login accounts, and commenting while not logged in, particularly if you are using an email address to post a comment that is or ever was associated with an account in some way.
Ugh, WordPress wasn’t showing me replies to things, and then I tried resetting my password. It will not acknowledge it, so…I can’t sign in.
Hence taking out the stupid Twitter again. Which doesn’t show me replies to things. Back to square one (or maybe I can remember to click to get notification emails…).
Thanks for extracting it, cap’n!
LW, I think you are comparing your current relationship to your past, abusive relationship. Partner looks pretty good next to abusive Ex. How does Partner look without the filter of the past?
What if you compared this relationship to the one that you would like to have? A hypothetical ideal? Could you ever get there from here?
I have seen people make these sorts of situations work. Normally, it involves moving far, far away from the crazy family. You say you can’t afford to move now. Could you work toward that? You are both underemployed–how about looking for jobs at least a day’s drive away?
I had a partner who was impotent. I was his second sexual partner after a lifetime of internalizing that sex is disgusting and wrong, and his previous partner who was emotionally abusive (in general) and particularly hard on him when he lost his erections mid-coitus. Which happened EVERY TIME his whole life. He actually did not know that it was mechanically supposed to go differently. So of course I was so understanding of the baggage from the ex and gentle and patient and waited and put my needs aside and tried to appreciate his finer qualities and I felt obliged and beholden to him because he was taking care of me when I was reeling from a crappy dismissive boyfriend before him.
I say all this to say that this guy was sweet and kind and helped me recover from a very sad and terrible situation, not unlike yourself.
He wanted to be different than he was. He didn’t want to actually go to therapy for it (though the last two years of our relationship I was able to get him into therapy with me) but he wanted it to just magically be “normal.”
(Disclaimer: please don’t overload “normal” with all the cis/hetero/vanilla/whatever baggage, I am just meaning that normal would be he would get, maintain, and discharge an erection as the biologically standard design of the organ.)
After six years of him hyperventilating at the thought of having to deal with lady parts, I was done. He loved me and wanted to keep me. (This was very novel for me.) He acknowledged that his weird family probably led to some of his warped programming about sex and it’s “rightness.” His family loved me, but they were very broken and off-putting, and I didn’t mind losing them. I am vastly oversimplifying, but basically, change could have happened, except it didn’t. And it wasn’t going to.
Because he isn’t that person. He couldn’t be the sensual, sexual person I needed him to be, or that he wanted to be for me. I spent six years feeling unlovable and isolated and ugly and deprived and hopeless while he spent six years feeling guilty and frustrated and pressured and it sucked for both of us. Self-care was difficult and it was made more difficult by my insidiously unhelpful friend group. So I was basically alone in all this, as I sense LW feels she is.
We had other relationship issues that maybe could have been worked out, maybe not. It was THIS that ended it.
We’re friendly now, we’re both with new partners who make us much, much happier. My life is so much better also for ditching the shitty friends as well as him. I can’t speak for his new intimate life, but I am pretty sure he’s not being called upon to be something he’s not, and I am not with someone I wish would just X and then everything would be good; I have . It gets better.
I stayed for six years because I am NOT the ditch-him-and-run (see: the verboten letters warning above) type – I am the “well, he’s trying” and “he really wants this to work, I can’t just slap him in the face for not being perfect” type. If I was the other type, this relationship would have been done in probably six months. If I met him today, it probably wouldn’t get past sex attempt #2. Because for ME, I finally figured out after this guy that I deserve a partner that fits me, and I deserve the people I surround myself with to have my back with the same fierce loyalty and focus that I have theirs.
I personally don’t think your fiance has got your back on this, and I don’t like that he’s blaming you for his friends’ and family’s behavior. But if that’s the only thing wrong with him, the “cost of admission” then I wish you luck. But my experience is that something that is this ingrained generally cannot be uprooted without the full and eager participation of the partner (him).
For the previous relationship, and the current travails, I wish I could just buy you a drink and give you a real hug. *Jedi fist bump of solidarity*
“I spent six years feeling unlovable and isolated and ugly and deprived and hopeless while he spent six years feeling guilty and frustrated and pressured and it sucked for both of us.”
This is so familiar to me. I also stayed with a partner who was unable to be physically initimate with me for years. Neither of us was trying to hurt the other but we did, massively. He wanted things to change, and kept promising that they would, but without really doing anything about it other than to wait for things to magically be fixed.
In the end I left because even though there was still the possibility of things being better in the future, I just could not cope with things being like that *now* for any longer.
What I love about this blog is that I find stories where people have made the same mistakes as me. Even though I’m sad to hear about other people’s bad experiences it makes me feel less broken to know I’m not the only person in the world capable of screwing up like this. Hearing that people like karinacinerina have gone on from these mistakes to have great lives makes me feel even better!
I’m not sure it is a cheap shot – the prospect of children (these people’s grandchildren, nieces and nephews, your partner’s children) really concerns me. Because they are not going to magically immune to this stuff, and as malleable minds, they are likely to experience abuse, they are likely to be used as weapons against both your partner and you, and the efforts you make to protect them will most likely cause even more – possibly much worse – conflict between you and your chap. And I don’t think you want your kids to see their father call their mother a bitch and blame her for the problems in their family.
Your chap may be a saint next to his family (they are truly horrible!) and he may have helped you a very great deal in the past, but that’s still an abusive household. It is entirely understandable that your chap operates this way because of what he has experienced, but what he absolutely has to address is how he treats you. There may be a future where you are effectively shielded from his family, but your scapegoat status isn’t at all healthy, and given everything you’ve been through, the strength and resilience you have demonstrated, you deserve better.
In my wider family, there are partners that are never seen, some for reasons I understand, some for not. There’s sometimes a little gossip about these absent parties, but over time we’re all used to it. Quite late on, my Dad stopped seeing my grandmother (mother’s mother) because of her insults, abuse and accusations. But be warned; the grandchildren are always the problem. They are the tyrants’ flesh and blood! Not to see them (and subject them to remarks about their bitch mother/ bastard father) breaks their ageing hearts!
All other scenarios I can think of in my life and experience where this sort of thing improved have two major differences from the LW’s: (a) they hadn’t gone on so long already before everyone got their act together and (b) the partner with the terrible family didn’t call the other partner names when these crises arose.
You’re right about the children. My mother was treated very similarly to the LW by my grandmother. My mother had to have a hysterectomy, which is why my grandmother acted that way. When my parents adopted me, I was an extension of my mother’s “choice” to “humiliate” the family by not having “natural” children. The BS directed at me was much milder than that directed at my mother, but I would not wish this on my worst enemy. The LW’s fiance’s mother and father will do this to her children. They will. If the LW wants children, she needs to seriously consider if this is the environment she wants for them.
When I started dating the Brom, I was completely upfront: “I have a child. We are a package deal. I will not be having other children, for Reasons (when things became serious, I explained that Reasons included two miscarriages and a pregnancy and delivery of the sort that inspires horrifying obstetrics journal articles: I had a tubal ligation at 26). If this is a dealbreaker, let us continue to hang out late at night at the radio station and be buds!” Happily his response was “I do not want babies of my own, but I like older small humans; let us hang out together in a no-pressure way and see what happens.” (When talk eventually turned to marriage, the Acorn said “If I get a vote for a stepdad? I want him.”)
This was heartbreaking to the Brom’s mother, and she made sure to let us know it. “But baaaaaaaabiiiiiiiiiieeeessss!” “Um, did you miss the part where your son doesn’t want to have them?” “Oh, he’d change his mind with the right woman!” The digs were more subtle over the years, but finally we were several thousand miles away and contact was greatly limited, generally consisting of phone calls asking for tech support and Christmas letters.
Forward 15 years: the Acorn has graduated college the same week that the Brom has been laid off. It is Christmas, and we are getting by with contract work and things are scary, but we are managing. The Brom’s beloved younger brother and his wife have just had a tiny human of their own, and MIL has gone to visit them. This involves overseas travel; she has never visited us except on her way somewhere else, but we shrug and exchange rueful grins and move on.
In a segment produced by a local TV station, the exhausted happy family chats with someone off-screen. MIL, holding our niece, smiles into the camera and says “It’s so wonderful to finally have a grandchild.” In the Christmas letter we receive a few days later, there is endless chatter about the delights of the baby, and no mention of the Acorn’s having graduated with honors, no mention of us at all beyond “Oh, and The Brom lost his job.”
The Brom took himself to a therapist and — after sessions in which he heard a lot of “No, that is actually profoundly fucked up behavior on her part and you should not put up that shit” –wound up cutting off contact with her completely; attempts by other family members to argue him out of it has led to a great reduction of time spent with them as well, which is a relief to all of us. The Acorn was initially hurt by the letter and the television spot, but said “Wait, I have three grandmothers who think I hung the Moon in the sky; she’s barely acknowledged my existence all this time. What the Hell do I care what she thinks?”
In my generous moments, I feel sorry for her: her husband’s dead, her other son has no desire to move back to the US and she’s spending Christmas with other people’s families. But rewarding bad behavior with the precious nuggets of my attention is a habit I have trained myself out of, and it’s one I hope the LW will consider.
Completely off-topic, but PLEASE tell me “Brom” stands for Bromeliad!
Botany geeks FTW! *fistbump*
Aw yeah. Pineapples and Spanish moss forever!
I mistyped my e-mail, so the other comment’s in moderation, but I wanted to offer am.w a Jedi fistbump of solidarity: I was the mother in your scenario, and the Brom’s mother has never forgiven me for not gracing the family with babies that share his DNA. That he’s the guy who held the Acorn after nightmares, put him through college and is called “Dad” by him isn’t good enough — and it’s her loss.
Really, really not a cheap shot. More an important factor to consider.
I gave the Cliff’s notes version of being a kid in a similar situation in a comment below but left out the “but she’s our graaaaaaaaaaaaaandbaby, you evil harpy” days. There were plenty of those, too. They didn’t want to be around me me for who I was. They wanted to use me for the control it gave them over my parents and maybe to “save” me from becoming like them.
Hi LW. I’m really sorry you are dealing with, and I understand the reluctance to leave your fiance just because his family is a bunch of assholes. We don’t get to pick our families after all. But there was one minor thing that concerned me about your letter (well, there were major things too, but I think both you and the captain already acknowledge them). I was perplexed by this comment “Short of couples therapy (which he’s very resistant to)”. You said he was already undergoing therapy to deal with the abuse he’s suffered from his family, so it’s surprising to me that he would be reluctant to engage in more therapy to fix some really major problems in your relationship (since he’s clearly not against therapy as a whole, I mean). It reminded me of a situation I had with an ex when we were having serious communication problems. He was actually the one who suggested couples therapy, and I was a bit reluctant believing that if you need couple therapy before you’re actually married, then you are in a doomed relationship (I don’t believe this anymore), but I agreed and even said I would set it up for us. That’s when he changed his mind and refused to go, but said I should go alone. It took me a while, but I finally realized that the crux of the problem was that I wanted US to fix our problems, and he wanted ME to fix them. Based on the gaslighting your fiance has done before by blaming you for all the conflict you’ve encountered, it makes me feel like he is in a similar frame of mind. I strongly suggest heeding the captain’s advice about asking him how he thinks the situation with his family could improve, and really listen to his answers. Maybe he will come up with an answer where BOTH of you have to commit to working to improve your interactions. Maybe he will come with an answer where HE stands up to his family and starts enforcing boundaries with them (that would be awesome!). But if his answers require YOU do all the work, such as YOU need to stop sharing your political opinions, YOU need to be nicer, YOU need to be more understanding when people break into your home and shit talk you outside your bedroom door, then I think you have some serious thinking to do. His family is not YOUR problem to fix, but YOU do deserve to be happy and respected especially in your own home and especially by a fiance who loves you. Many best wishes and Jedi hugs as you come to your own conclusions.
seconded. This is definitely what I had in mind to add but you articulate it so well i do not need to!. the partner may also be in some sort of denial about the nature of his family. Acknowledging it “yeah i know they are shit” is a long way from dealing with it and not gaslighting you in your attempts. A good response from him would be ” yeah i know they are shit and they dont have the right to treat you this way, let’s try and deal with this in a constructive way” Jedi hugs coming your way.
Yes, all of this. And because it bears repeating to infinity: based on what you describe, you are so not the problem here! These behaviors are truly and categorically fucked up! Your reactions are normal and reasonable! They are wrong, you are right, and you should not have to put up with this crap!
I was struck by the LW’s gratitude for her partner when she was getting over her prior relationship. It is good to appreciate the things our partners do for us. I think sometimes there can be a tendency to over appreciate a minimum level of understanding.
Sticking by and being supportive and patient when your partner is having a tough time isn’t a factory add on or a customization. It should come standard on any partner you plan on being with for the foreseeable future. Supportive and patient with people we love isn’t like satellite radio, it is like a fucking seat belt. Would you buy a car without seat belts?
I’m saying this because I know what it is to look at all the stuff you an your partner have gone through and say “well he put up with all of THAT.” You know what, he should have, because you are a person who deserves love and understanding and compassion when they go through a tough time.
(Is this a lady thing? Are we just so grateful that men agree to stick around when we are having a real life that is complicated and hard that we give them a free pass when they turn around and are assholes? I hear this a lot as a reason for staying with so-so partners, oh but he was so nice to me when XYZ. Uh, yeah, he’d better have been.)
Everyone deserves a partner who will be there when the going gets tough. They also deserve a partner that is willing to take their side and put them first.
I would encourage the LW to stop giving her partner retroactive brownie points for being a decent person who didn’t drop someone just because they had been through some stuff. Going through stuff, and working through stuff is what sharing life with a partner is about.
Captaib Awkward and the Awkward Army always give such good advice! I hope you find it useful, LW!
I can’t really see a way in which your partner has your back right now, and that worries me. He may be in the process of trying to acknowledge the painful truth about his family, or he may be in capital-D Denial and not willing to face it. Only you know if there has been any progress. I remember my dad telling me after his last remaining parent died that he had only just realised that both his parents had favourites of their children, and he wasn’t either of their favourites, and how much that hurt him. I say this because my dad was in his 50s and he had only just been able to see that about his family (AND he is a psychologist!) – the denial about family bad behaviour runs deep, and is very difficult to overcome.
You can’t make him change or support you in the way you’d like to be supported, so I’d suggest that you look into making sure you are supported elsewhere. Do you have friends who have your back, or your own therapist? While this is going on, it’s really important that you have Team You to stop you from being ground down into thinking that you “deserve” this kind of treatment.
To answer the Captain’s call for stories that are relevant, I left my Big Serious Important Relationship three years ago. Not for the same reasons as you – we wanted different things put of life (entirely child-related – I wanted kids snd he didn’t) and that seeped into every part of our relationship until it just wasn’t working any more. I’m not with anyone else right now and sometimes I do feel sad about that, but I know how much worse it felt when we were together and making each other unhappy. I still see him from time to time, and we’ve got to the stage where we can reminisce about the good times and have fun catching up. And then I go home and feel really grateful that we’re not still together and his most annoying habits (such as thinking my feminism is amusing, or never taking an interest in my work when I knew all his colleagues’ names and everything about what he did) no longer personally affect me. I honestly breathe a sigh of relief that he’s no longer my SO, and at the time we were together I never thought I’d say that. I loved him, it was good, I will always be glad of our relationship – but we were right to end it, and we’re both happier now.
I have bad inlaws (although not as bad as yours) so here is what went down when my then-boyfriend/fiance changed how he related to them, plus a couple practical tips:
My super long story of how it changed:
We got together when we were 18, so I was kind of used to adults telling me what to do and being up in my business, and at the start of our relationship the fact that his parents did that wasn’t as big a deal to me. Then, we graduated from college and continued to stay together (something I believe his mom was not in favor of, she told my parents when we were in college that she hoped we wouldn’t get married.) His mom got way worse in terms of general rudeness, as well as trying to control both our life decisions. Not coincidentally, the life decision his whole family kept trying to get him to make for years was to move away from me rather than in with me. There was a fair amount of insulting me and then refusal to take responsibility for having insulted me, because it was my fault for interpreting an honest assessment of my character as an insult. There was even more unhelpful and intrusive “help.” Throughout this period, my bf was really invested in the idea that they were just trying to help and that we could show them we were adults by being adults and they would learn to adjust or whatever. He also had an amazing superpower of forgetting bad things that they do, so that we’d have an awful visit with them, come home and fight about whether it had been awful, he’d want to stop talking about it and work his denial magic, and a few months later remember it as loads of fun and want both of us to visit again. I would feel like the only person with a grip on reality, and he would feel defensive and caught in the middle.
For a while my dubiously productive strategy was just to have fights about how his family shouldn’t treat me like that and he should stand up for me. He would kind of agree in principle and then as soon as his parents were in the room it was the same as before. We ended up doing some relationship counseling at his insistence, and it was the best thing ever. We learned a lot of communication skills and it really deepened our relationship. After that, we were able to talk more productively about what we might actually do about the situation, instead of just repeating loudly that it was bad but being unable to fix it.
He really committed to reinforcing more boundaries with his family, and once we became engaged and they got even more up in everything, he struggled really hard to manage that boundary. LW, it is not easy. His mom straight up says whatever she can think of that will hurt him the most, and later claims not to have meant it and so won’t apologize. It’s really painful for him, and she hasn’t changed yet. I actually think she has gotten worse. What has changed is that we’ve worked out a way to keep this his project of repairing his relationship with his mom, rather than a giant vortex of awful family.
I think the biggest change is that he’s reinforcing his own boundaries with his family. They’re actually awful to him too (their whole dynamic is pretty awful), and he’s acknowledged that they do bad things and are responsible for them and he wants to not have those things done at him any more. IMHO, him becoming fully invested in maintaining boundaries with his family has been the biggest change.
He’s agreed I don’t have to try to mollify everyone in his family, and if I want to leave an upsetting situation or tell someone not to treat me a certain way, he will come with me/back me up. He backs me up on a lot of things now, and it’s huge.
We also agreed that I only have to see them twice a year, and I can say no to a particular event if I want to. This is awesome, practically speaking, and also makes me feel in control. Also, I feel that I can support him better emotionally when I’m not simultaneously trying to remind him of shitty things his family did.
After the wedding we realized that planning something that they participate in is mad stressful, and it would be better in the future to just be guests rather than people responsible for events they’re at – it’s too tempting to try to manage their behavior.
Also, remember: your partner was raised by these people. Just like my parents still have me kind of convinced that disliking gift giving because it’s inefficient or actually enjoying non-frosted shredded wheat is probably normal (it’s not, right?), his parents raised him to think this was fine. So, even if he realizes this isn’t fine, he doesn’t know what else fine might look like. He needs to get there himself, but it would help if you recognized how hard that is, and were gentle about it.
TL;DR of my story: He is the person who can/should change, and I recommend couples counseling as well as patience, but not the kind of patience where you let things slide because maybe people will change out of the blue.
Also, a couple more little practical things, from my experience trying to do the kind of stuff the Captain suggests:
I didn’t want to change my email address, so I just have a filter that forwards everything to my husband. My husband agreed to field my emails from his mom and only mention them to me if they were of real importance, but I think you can do this without your fiance’s agreement too. He doesn’t want all her emails? Guess what, neither do you.
When we visit overnight at his grandmother’s, we get a hotel room and rent a car. The default situation is for us to leave at some point each evening, so we can leave easily whenever we want. I know money is tight for you, so maybe you should only go visit if you can escape to a friend’s place and there is convenient public transit? Since the main offenders live nearby, maybe bike there so you’re essentially traveling separately? The most important thing is for it to be as easy as possible, physically and emotionally, to leave.
I’ve never had to do this but if someone broke into my house I would call the police. I have actually practiced threatening to call the police if I have to, maybe that will make you feel more in control? It sounds like maybe someone let them in, but my hope is that an angry-calm “If you don’t get out of my house, I’m calling the police,” would be effective anyway. Put their non-emergency number in your phone. Disclaimer: I’m white in America, obviously YMMV with the police.
Oh Emma I am in such a similar situation, except my husband doesn’t entirely have my back and I have never gotten the courage to walk out of the house when his mom is being shitty. Now I am pregnant and I absolutely refuse to allow our kid to be subjected to my MIL’s verbal abuse (even if it’s directed toward someone else and the kid is just in the room) but I am afraid that is a battle I’ll be fighting against my husband instead of with him. Which is why I’m reading this in the middle of the night, terrified that having this child is a mistake and that I’ve done something cruel by choosing to bring it into a family with grandparents like this. Your comment gives me hope that if I can get my husband on my side things will be ok, and other comments here explaining what it’s like to be that kid might help me do that. Thank you so much for commenting.
BSK, starting counseling now and working on this might help – BEFORE you have a child, because kids make everything a lot more tangled up. Other than that, I don’t think it’s something you can fight as a battle; you simply present it what you are going to do (“if your mother starts that in front of the kid, I will leave with the grandchild immediately”). What HE does is HIS decision. As somebody said in the great comment upthread, that’s his baggage and you are not going to carry it for you.
+1. Or maybe a million.
Drag your husband to couples counseling to talk about these issue now. We talked about parenting ahead of time so I thought we were on the same page, but we were not, in a lot of ways that are actually really important.
I’m glad my comment was helpful!! I totally recommend couples counseling to everyone I know now. In my own experience, it was really not like a negotiating table, it was more like the two of us practicing working together as a team. I imagine it as Kobe and Lebron practicing together before the Olympics: obviously they are already good at basketball, but they have to practice doing all their skills together to become a successful team. Counseling gave us a lot of tools for difficult decision-making and listening fairly to each other for outside of the counseling office. Dealing with his family came up but wasn’t really the focus of it, but after we did the counseling we were able to deal with that ourselves. So I think it could be really useful for you and your husband’s future navigation of parenting and families, even if you just do a little bit now and don’t address every issue.
BSK – you will have to find that courage to walk out of MIL’s house, for your child’s sake. Do as neverjaunty suggests, and have the talk with your husband NOW, before the baby arrives.
Your husband was raised in a household where emotional abuse was the norm, and it’s going to take a lot of years of “(if someone else did it,) does [bad behavior] sound normal to you?” conversations before your husband realizes that his family’s behavior is abusive, and unless he becomes VERY AWARE, he’s going to act like that towards his child. Not because he is a terrible and abusive person, but because his automatic responses, stored in his back brain, will be those he heard as a child.
If the talks are not reassuring, take yourself and the baby away. Yes, it’s hard to wrench yourself away, yes, it will make his family reinforce how mean and nasty you are, etc, etc. But if you stay, you and your child will continue to be abused, even if second-hand. If he doesn’t have your back now, he won’t after the baby comes – unless you two can talk enough to know how important breaking the cycle is.
If you don’t, you’ll end up miserable, and your child may end up even more miserable. Don’t wait to see if the kid gets abused; take charge of your life and your kid’s safety now.
My girlfriend’s family was supportive when she came out… all except her sister, who decided that she could “fix” my gf and the best way to do that was to treat me like shit at every possible opportunity. She embarked on a campaign of boundary-pushing and tantrum-having.
– she says mean things to me constantly in front of gf’s parents and brother, and i’m sure more behind my back
– she also gets in contact with gf’s high school and college friends to talk shit about me
– she uses a lot of homophobic slurs, all directed at me, never at gf
– when we were in college, she would drive up unannounced and force herself into staying with gf in her dorm room and monopolize gf’s time to the point where she couldn’t get her homework done, let alone hang out with me
– during those visits/invasions if i was around she picked fights and would end up screaming at me in public
At first my gf didn’t do anything about it — it made her sad and anxious when her sister misbehaved, but she either didn’t know how to respond or wasn’t brave enough to stand up for me. Then we had a series of conversations about it and she stepped up, big time. Her sister’s behavior has improved incrementally, but our situation is way better. The bad news for you, LW, is that we accomplished this by mostly cutting Bad Sister out of our lives. It’d probably be harder for your partner to do the same, since there are so many more bad elements involved. But here are a couple things that worked for us, regardless — maybe you can apply them.
– Captain’s advice applies. I don’t ever have to see her sister normally, and if she is present at Thanksgiving and says anything mean we leave immediately. At first my gf saw her more than this, but over time she has stopped because their visits were stressful. That was more obvious once I wasn’t there to take the heat off.
– I don’t take it personally when her sister says mean things about me. This is basically impossible when you have to meet it face to face, but once you stop trying to be the “nice” one and withdraw from the situation it gets much easier. It’s my gf’s responsibility to have uncomfortable emotions when her sister gets out of hand, not mine. After all, her sister’s ire is really directed at her, not me.
– As such, I don’t complain about her sister anymore. She does, and I support her and sympathize with her. But it’s her family that has the problem, not mine. I don’t even know her sister, really. Putting myself in the support role instead of the aggressive complainer role kept her from getting defensive when we talked about what to do about Mean Sister.
– Once we came up with our boundaries, gf went to her parents and told them what was up. Told them, not asked them. “Do not invite us and sister to the same dinner; we will not come,” etc. This worked for us because her parents are on our side — not the case for you, LW. So is there anyone in your partner’s life in the same circle as the toxic people that thinks this conflict is out of hand, and that respects and understands boundaries? Another family friend, an aunt, grandparents? If so, have him approach them and explain the situation in calm, direct terms. Having the people on the perimeter of the drama understand your reasoning will reassure both you and your partner that his side of the family/friend circle isn’t a complete morass of irrationality, and may give him more confidence to stand up for these boundaries.
In truth, this has all worked for us because gf is GREAT about it, and has been really proactive about enforcing our boundaries at every little infraction. (All this conversation also happened during months 3-6 of our relationship, when we were setting up the structure of “us” long-term anyway, so a lot of conversations like this were happening.) So this may be a hard road for you and your partner — maybe an impossible one. I have to agree with everyone else that if he can’t support you and deal with these people himself, you’ll be happier without him.
I am commenting because I’m just taking the final steps in leaving a 6 year relationship (as in, finishing moving out and today is cat moving day!) and thought I’d offer some things that have been working out for me.
The background is that we’ve lived together for about three years, though even before that we were basically living together (I lived in an apartment he with his parents; most nights he spent at my apartment) too. I love him and he was a great boyfriend and someone I never wanted (and still don\’t, really) to leave. I didn’t have to suffer the emotional abuse that you are suffering from your basically in-laws, but I was in a long term relationship with someone who really in my mind and heart was already my husband without the paperwork, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me or really most people, that breaking up was the obvious next step (although now I feel that it was!)
So what helps me:
writing to Captain Awkward: I drafted soo many letters to the good captain about this decision and didn\’t send a one of them. Getting them down on paper helped organize my thoughts. I see that you did this already, LW, so good for you! Whatever you ultimately decide to do, I hope that writing down what has happenedis happening makes your decision easier.
clear boundaries. ”I’m sorry, but you keep acting like this conversation is still happening. It is not. It is over. If you have something truly new to bring to the table, we can talk, but otherwise I think this is just hurting both of us more. (leaves area)”
a plan: I had a time-frame picked out (let’s discuss this and find a solution by August. We didn’t find a solution, I’m sticking to the time-frame then), I made it clear that the furniture my cousin recently gave us was mine so there’d be no arguments after the break-up about that, I would be willing to extend the deadline only for something concrete like couples therapy. (He suggested trying just a break. ”Sorry, I can’t do a break. If you want to try therapy I’m still open to that even now, but no break.” See boundaries, above)
Meta-emotional awareness: This is one I fortunately already have experience with. It’s hard and it’s a skill, and I’m glad I’d developed it already. I’m allowed to feel bad, angry, petty, sad, relieved, happy, allowed to think about jumping into bed with someone else even immediately after breaking up. It is good and fine and totally legal (and for me at least, totally necessary for processing) to have those emotions! Acting on them is different (though sometimes still fine. Crying because I’m sad? Fine!) I won’t let myself feel bad about any emotions or thoughts I have. This lets me think about them rationally and eases the guilty feelings by not ALSO feeling guilty about how I’m feeling. Ugh! Tying in with this: it helps to remind myself that no matter how life-changing a decision is, the world is not going to end. Frankly, even if I chiseled my thoughts into stone, it would not decide the rest of my fate for all eternity so treat my decisions with the gravity they deserve, but no more!
Limiting myself: OH GOD IT IS OVERWHELMING. So I figure out what I can do each day, and do that. I have a time frame and clear time-oriented goals but if all I can do today is eat ice cream and pet my cats, then okay. If I can pack all of my books and DVDs and games today, then that’s also okay! But I know that I’d crash if I didn’t rest at some point! Since I have the luxury of not needing to move out by tomorrow, I’ve made sure I’ve done no more than 2 hours of work in one block. (Not just two hours a day, just… mandatory breaks! What someone else can handle is different from what I can so my time frame isn’t an obvious one that everyone should follow. Breaks are a must though.)
Distractions: I discovered playing FF7 on my PSP is a fantastic distraction. Can’t sleep because I’m crying? FF7. The downside is I’m training myself that bed’s not just for sleep, and it’s really easy to lose track of time, but the upside is when I do get to sleep it’s much more restful sleep. I’m not sure that I’d recommend this particular distraction to everyone because the downsides are definitely downsides, but distraction is by far my favorite coping mechanism.
Time to make decisions: So I totally had forgotten about actually planning how to move the furniture and to where, since my ”stay with my parents for 6 months” plan is a good one except for a lack of storage area. Crap. Well, right now I know that I shouldn’t make impulsive decisions. Again, since I have the luxury of more than just a weekend to move out, I will take that time so I can take a step back. Even more immediate issues are allowed 15 minutes to simmer.
Validation: ”I’m really proud of myself for making this decision. I can be happy moving forward and this is the right decision for me.” I am lucky that I have a supportive Team Me already that also says ”I’m so proud of you for this decision. I don’t know if I could make it, but I know you thought it through and you are doing what’s right for you. That is awesome.” Sometimes I call my mom and say ”I’m really sad, but I’m still proud of myself” and she knows that means I want her to say ”I’m proud of you too!”
Time: It sounds so trite but really. The further we get from ”I hate it but I have to move on!” the more comfortable I am that this was the right decision. That the relationship was not meeting my needs, and that while when I did all the right things to get my needs met things got better, there was still a pattern of not-where-I-needed-it-to-be-ness, and I was unlikely to have ever gotten to that point if I did stick around. This kind of makes it suck more because then I start getting creeping ”I should regret all the time I put into that relationship!” feelings but using meta-emotional awareness and therapy and validation as mentioned above… I don’t. I made the best decisions for myself at the time, and it’s okay if I have new information now that I didn’t before, or new tools in my box now, etc. Frankly, it’s even okay if I made a decision that actually was just a totally bad one. 😛 Time only goes forward, so I’m going to use that to my advantage!
So this is totally a novel and if you read through the CA archives I am pretty sure the Captain and the Awkward Army cover every single one of these points, but these have been sanity-savers for me. I’m not going to lie: the situation sucks so much, but surprisingly, life is going on and I believe and know deep down that things will take a turn for the positive no matter what happens from here, and that I will be happy again. I know I’m capable of being happy if I stayed, but I know I have more potential for leaving. I am confident that can make a decision in which you give yourself the best opportunities for happiness.
(My current script when people ask: ”No, I’m not really okay yet. But it’s a yet and I know I’ll be happy again eventually. Thanks for your kind words. (Subject change).”)
Jedi hugs to you, LW, if you want them.
“clear boundaries. ”I’m sorry, but you keep acting like this conversation is still happening. It is not. It is over. If you have something truly new to bring to the table, we can talk, but otherwise I think this is just hurting both of us more. (leaves area)”
This is pure gold – thank you!
You are excellent and thankyou for sharing this.
Oh, and I want to add in terms of taking care of myself in the meantime: Not keeping their bad behavior a secret. I felt tons better when I started just telling people the truth when they asked how my vacation had been or how I got along with the in-laws. Keeping “dirty laundry” a secret is just helping them get away with it, and made me feel like I was hurting my own feelings for them.
LW: One thing I have tried to do when taking an honest look at what is going on in a friendship/relationship is to imagine that I am watching it on t.v., and I have turned the sound off. Words are easy to say — actions are hard. With no words, what do you see happening in this relationship ? What are his actions communicating ?
I was in a horrible relationship for a long time. The worst thing was that I really, completely, foolishly loved this man who was not treating me well, who did not respect or protect me. His emotional abuse ranged from the mild (telling me things that other people had allegedly said about me — “for my own good, that’s how other people see you” ) — to really deep, awful, fucked up stuff. I have a long history of being treated badly by family, by so-called friends, so when I was finally with someone who treated me well, some of the time, that seemed incredible.
During some of the more messed up interactions I had with this person, I would often ask him “What would you think if you were watching this through a window in a stranger’s house ? Would you think your behavior is okay ?” Intellectually he could sort of dimly grasp that his actions/reactions/etc. were abnormal/hurtful, etc. — but emotionally he seemed hard wired to insist that this is just how he was, and that he had no interest in change of any kind. There is no reasoning an abusive person out of their abusive behavior. Abuse is a pattern that repeats and escalates over time.
It does not sound like your boyfriend is willing to call out his family or friends on their hurtful behavior towards you. Whatever the good, loving, sexy attractive things you see in this person will also always be overshadowed by the fact that they are not even willing to protect or defend you. IF you have children with this person, you will be tethered to this person and his family FOREVER. You have told him that his family and friend’s behavior is hurting you. You have told him that his behavior is hurting you. He has refused to accept responsibility for his actions, won’t go to therapy, and does not seem to acknowledge how hurtful this is for you.
I was the kid. You know, the kid the parents had because they loved each other and the inlaws were awful to their chosen partner. BOTH sets of grandparents were awful, awful people who hated their children’s partners. My father’s family badmouthed my mother to me and told me they were sure I wouldn’t turn out to be as terrible as her. I’m “worse” by their metric. My mother’s family just hated everyone including both of my parents and me. At four years old I had the absolute certainty that none of my grandparents loved me but that we had to see them anyway because: FAMILY.
The big difference? They didn’t gaslight each other. They both knew it was bad and they cried and they raged and they tried to protect me from it. Even knowing what they needed to do for their own wellbeing, for their safety, for my safety (yes, actual physical safety) leaving was HARD. But we did. Eventually. I was born into it and I was almost a legal adult when they finally managed to disengage themselves from the last of them. It’s now been decades and I don’t miss them. I don’t wonder about them. The only time I ever bring them out and dust them off is to tell cautionary tales.
If your partner does come around and decide to disengage, it will be hard and he’ll need help. A lot of it. Just deciding to disengage is hard. If he doesn’t, when you decide if the price of admission is worth it, please include that they will probably spend a lot of their time telling your children how awful you are. I never believed them. Not for one minute but I spent much of my youth carrying the burden of never letting my mother know how much my grandparents hated her. Of course she knew. I know that now. But I didn’t then and I thought I needed to carry it alone to protect her.
Oh, LW, I have such sympathy for you. As a fellow survivor of sexual abuse, I know that finding a partner who can handle that aspect of your history can feel like winning the lottery. There are a lot of people out there — good, kind, wonderful people — who just cannot handle that shit.
But here’s the thing: your fiance needs to be on Team You, and right now, he’s not. His role as your fiance should mean that when people (no matter who) do or say awful things to you, he gets mad at *them*, not you. Everyone from the mean guy at the deli counter to his own parents should know that an insult to you is an insult to him.
The question that I always ask myself when evaluting a new relationship (romantic or otherwise) is “will this person have my back?” Sometimes, the answer is Yes. Sometimes, it’s Need More Data. Sometimes, sadly, the answer is No, and that means that person and I won’t be close until and unless the person’s actions indicate the answer has changed. Ask yourself, LW, will your fiance have your back? I don’t see a lot of Yes in your letter, and the Captain is right–after 5.5 years, you have all the data you need.
Maybe he can get on Team You. Maybe counselling can help, maybe getting away from his poisonous family can create the distance you need to help you deal with it, maybe your continual reinforcement of your own boundaries can get his awful friends and family to back up enough so that it doesn’t matter as much anymore.
But if he can’t get on your team, if the answer to the question is and will always be No, let me reassure you that there are other people out there who will accept you as you are and will be on Team You. And maybe they won’t be surrounded by horrible people.
Since you’re planning on spawning, LW, I’m just going to say:
Babies, while amazing, are pretty fucking stressful, and will put *a lot* of strain on your relationship. Trust me, you do not want to parent in this situation. Not only.will.they be incredibly unsupportive of every pregnancy/infant care choice you make, you will also have to watch your partner enable them as they emotionally abuse your child. Imagine trying to get your partner to tell his mother that no, she cannot take the baby for the afternoon. Or finding your FIL pulled the “no talking” rule on your 6-year-old. Or having your 10-year-old come back from a visit to hir aunt’s all sad and withdrawn because everyone was talking about what a complete bitch you are. You think it feels bad when they do it to you and your partner does nothing? Imagine what you’ll feel like when he refuses to stand up for the tiny helpless creature you made inside your body and would cheerfully throw yourself in front of atom bombs to protect.
You need your partner to have your back in any case, but you REALLY REALLY need them to have your back when you have kids. Having a baby brought up some shit in my own marriage that I didn’t expect and that we’re still dealing with.
However you deal with this – and I agree that your partner’s family is never going to get any better – deal with it and get on the same page with your partner before you get knocked up. Or find someone who will at least stand up to the Pinter characters zie grew up with and spawn with *hir*.
“You need your partner to have your back in any case, but you REALLY REALLY need them to have your back when you have kids. ”
This x1000!! Every two people have enough to work out just between the two of them while becoming parents together – when you throw in a completely unbalanced, dysfunctional, emotionally abusive in-law/grandparent relationship, that will be nothing but heartache for you and your future potential children.
You can have a happy family with someone who has a horrible family of origin, but only if they want to and are capable of setting very strong boundaries around your relationship and children. (Probably starting with moving far away from them to cut off most of the enmeshment.) This is not the man you have now. I know this is not what you want and I am so sorry.
“Babies, while amazing, are pretty fucking stressful, and will put *a lot* of strain on your relationship.”
Yesssss. Excellent point! +1 from another parent.
Yes, this. I was the kid in this relationship, and it’s unbelievably stressful. Suppose they treat your children like they do you, and your spouse responds the same way? They’re being taught that their feelings and boundaries don’t matter. And even if your in-laws treat your children well, as long as they and your partner treat you like this, they’re still teaching the children that *your* feelings don’t matter. That’s a terrible model to give them.
YES. One important pattern in abusive relationships (that happen in non-abusive relationships) is that children experiment with treating parents how others treat their parents. In abusive situations, this means children experiment with abusing their parents too and seeing if they can get away with it. They may learn that this is okay behavior. Do you want to be the sole dissenting voice against this kind of behavior?
YES. LW, when I think about someone being unpleasant to my little kids, I feel a pit in my stomach and a jolt of rage. If family treated my kids one-quarter as badly as your bf’s family treats you? When they’re too little to understand, and they just get confused and sad when someone’s mean to them, and end up assuming it’s somehow their fault? There just aren’t any words for how that would feel. For you or for them.
I don’t think this is a cheap or easy shot. I think it’s true: bringing a child into this situation could cause enormous pain and sorrow. And I think the emotional repercussions are different for an adult who makes a choice and can compare to past experience, vs. a child who only knows what s/he has lived us far. I don’t mean to be condescending as you may have thought quite a lot about this as you’ve worked on recovery from abuse. But maybe there is some kind of revisiting of those issues, on a more emotional level, in general for you in this situation.
I was in a relationship for several years with a woman whose family treated me like shit constantly. It loved my girlfriend dearly, but her family was incredibly abusive towards me, and while she would acknowledge sometimes that their behavior was abusive, for the most part she would back them up, gaslight me, etc. The behavior the LW is describing here – invasion of personal space, yelling, name-calling, etc – is intimately familiar territory for me.
I left when ex-GF’s family started becoming physically violent towards me whenever I was around them. They would literally make up excuses to attack me and then do so – throwing furniture at me, and generally terrorizing me and, by extension, the ex-GF.
I mention that they were terrorizing the ex-GF by extension because that’s a significant detail – while their abuse of me was extreme, they treated anyone outside of their own family who ex-GF tried to have any kind of meaningful relationship with like shit. They’d badmouth and be rude to all her friends. If she made friends with someone who wasn’t white, they’d spend month spewing racist rhetoric until she felt obligated to stop hanging out with them and bringing them around or until the friend got fed up and cut her off. Ditto if she made friends with someone who was trans, or disabled, or a member of any other kind of visible minority. Once the friend was out of the picture, they’d go back to acting like Good Liberals.
Their abuse of the people in my ex-GF’s life was an extension of their abuse of her. If she was allowed to form a real, healthy, long-term relationship with someone outside their family – someone she cared about and whose opinion she respected – then eventually, someday, she might come to realize that her family was abusing her and she might cut them off or otherwise hold them accountable for their shit. Therefore, anyone who she cared about outside of the family had to go. Their strategy was to escalate their abuse of anyone connected to her outside of their family until the person in question just couldn’t take it anymore. They relied on ex-GF’s loyalty to them to keep her from wising up in any real way, and keep her from leaving with the people they were driving away.
I stayed with my ex-GF for years because I thought that she would eventually cut them off – she talked about doing so sometimes, but never followed through – and that when she did, she would need my support more than ever. What happened instead was that their abuse of me escalated until it became a massive crisis and I had to leave, which meant, in no particular order: moving, changing my phone number, changing my e-mail address, switching jobs so no one could find me at work, and basically rebuilding my entire life.
It was agonizing. I lost not only the relationship that meant the most to me out of any relationship in my life up until that point, but years of work – on projects I’d been working on with my ex-GF (we’re both writers, and were working on two books together) – and a number of possessions with priceless sentimental value. I’d also been so isolated by the abuse that I had no external support network, and was in such a financially precarious situation that I couldn’t afford therapy. It was an unmitigated disaster.
What I did in the weeks, months, and years after leaving was work on my boundaries. I lived alone. I practiced setting boundaries in every aspect of my life. If someone made me feel uncomfortable, I stopped communicating with them entirely. If I felt uncomfortable at work, I quit. I went through multiple jobs. I lived alone.
It was the happiest I had ever been in my entire life up until that point.
I’m not going to tell you, LW, that you need to break up with your fiance. What I AM telling you is that no matter how much you may feel like you will have no chance at happiness if you DO leave your fiance, that feeling is not correct. You’ve been in this relationship for 5 1/2 years – that’s a long time to get used to being mistreated. IF you leave, it will be really, really hard – but you will have room to cope with how hard and heartbreaking it will be, without being mistreated.
You’re not being a bitch. Your partner is using calling you that to try to control your behavior. “LW is standing up for herself? Zounds! I will use this straw-man of fishwifery to put her back in her place forthwith!”
As for getting out of relationships that were long-term and/or involved a sense of loyalty: I’ve done that twice –
R1: Crappy Partner broke up with me.Things were fairly awkward and lonely for about a year; I was stuck living where I was and had to wait to move, and we had almost all the same friends. Eventually, when I could, I moved, made new friends, got a new job, made and lost more friends, switched jobs many times, moved a lot more. I have a decent life now: friends, job, place to live. CP went on to other relationships where they were still abusive–and as I heard later, significantly more abusive than they were with me. CP never changed.
For years afterwards, whenever I thought of the relationship, I reproached myself for not being tough, for not walking away, for letting things affect me, etc; and I looked at it as that CP has Legitimate Mental Problems which caused them to act how they did and it wasn’t their fault. Eventually I started to see it as it didn’t matter whether CP had Legitimate Mental Problems, they still treated me like crap, the relationship was abusive, and that the things I was dealing with were fall-out from being in abusive relationship.
R2: Serious Problems Partner helped me through some extremely rough times. SPP literally saved my live. I would not be typing this if they hadn’t been there for me. SPP also had a ton of problems of their own, which I knew about; and SPP was very possessive and did other Not Cool relationship things, but they were the only person I had during a hard time. I started to get better and SPP stayed the same. The relationship finally ended when I moved, got a new group of friends, and started seeing someone else (all of this happened in a very short period of time).
All that doesn’t mean I have a solid gold bullshit detector now, but I know, intellectually at least, that I can start my life over, even if it’s scary and lonely-sounding; and I’m a lot more aware of red flags early in a relationship and put up with way less stupid crap from people than I did a decade ago.
Also, things I would add that worked well:
1. Moving–not cheap but it can seriously help to GTFO
2. Joining group activities
3. Making friends
6. Reading lots of zines about abuse–this gave me an intellectual foundation to apply to my experiences that helped me see them in a way other than My Being Weak And Stupid; and also it gave me words and concepts to talk about what happened
I can Amen the moving. My wife had a not-so-healthy relationship with her family (primarily that they made a lot of decisions for her, set her up to fail constantly and then tell her that this validated them making decisions for her in the first place. Drove me up the F’ing wall), and moving away a significant distance has been one of the best things for it. It provides an enormously effective boundary to abusive/hurtful behavior, and it’s a million times easier to tune people out when you’re not constantly subjected to their BS in person. I think it is a great way to pull the power back into your hands in a dysfunctional relationship, although there are a lot of costs to it.
Sometimes it sucks living so far away from family support, and it means people have to really make an effort to stay involved. (And it can hurt a lot when they don’t, and clearly indicate that maybe you weren’t as important as you thought you were to them because they never prioritize seeing you.)
But I think sometimes it really is one of the best ways to create some much-needed distance, and allow yourselves much more focus on your primary relationship.
Moving can help. I really really missed my brother and his wife when they moved halfway across the country….but, it put her out of immediate reach of her family. Being out of reach of her mother and one of her sisters really improved her life. It restricted the abuse to occasional phone calls, or the annoyance of being left out of family news(Grandpa John died….in April? Yeah. Her family was like that).
Can I say once again that being out of easy visiting range really really helped my sister in law? We missed her, but, the improvement in her life was worth an occasional plane ticket or very long drive.
#2 for me, had to DTMFA. TLDR: Gave a 6 month window for improvement. Talked it through with my friends and overanalyzed and fretted for all 6 of those months.
Having friends that were supportive, good listeners was the only thing that helped. I started the talk with them about 3 months before actually giving him his deadline…and at that point I realized even though I didn’t want to leave him, I was so unhappy with the whole situation that it might be the only option. It took me 3 months and a “last straw” get the courage to talk to him about it.
Things didn’t improve so I kicked him out. He said, “I’ll do anything to keep you anything I promise!” to which I answered, “I just gave you what you needed to do and 6 months to accomplish it. You did not even make an attempt, so no, move out.” And he left and never spoke to me again. I’m so so so much happier now.
The Long Story (sorry):
I lived with a partner who was completely amazing (we were talking about marriage), except he had shitty friends from grade school. They would come over at all hours and be extremely disrespectful towards me and our house (smoke inside when I wasn’t home, leaving trash and half eaten fast food next on our counters/coffee table, Big Gulps on the floor next to the sofa that the cat would then knock over, would hang out watching TV really loud after both my boyfriend and I had gone to bed and HE’D asked them to leave…).
I put up with this for just over 2 years, I’d kick them out when I could, but they would bad mouth me to mutual close friends and I would get uninvited to parties. He would be present most times they were disrespectful, he wouldn’t object if I got mad or kicked them out and he wouldn’t make me feel bad about it but he would never HELP. I always had to stick up for myself.
One time, during a party at our house, Boyfriend had gone to bed but a lot of people were still around, we were playing drinking games and having a pretty great time. I walked into our bedroom to find one of his drunk friends PEEING IN MY CLOSET. I noticed Boyfriend was awake and looking at me standing behind the dude and I asked why he wasn’t doing anything. He said, “I didn’t want to deal with it.”
I gave him 6 months to start behaving like a partner and told him I was done dealing with his friends (the 2 worst ones were no longer allowed in our house, everyone else was on probation). He had to make an EFFORT to make this relationship pleasant enough to stay in and also get a job. He would be allowed 2 strikes. Strike one was his friend refusing to take off his shoes just after I’d had our carpets cleaned, he instead walked over our clean (cream colored) floor with his muddy shoes, hopped up on my sofa and did a jig…all while staring me directly in the face. I banished his ass immediately. My boyfriend witnessed this and just chuckled and shook his head.
I’d already made up my mind at strike one but I was hoping some magic would make him better somehow. Strike two was he stood me up (“forgot we had plans” after I’d called 3hrs before to confirm) to hang out with the sofa jig dude on our date night, the night before I was to go on a 5 day trip out of town and we already hadn’t spent more than an hour of awake time together in almost a week. That was it, he obviously didn’t care about me. I told him he needed to move out.
I later found out that he had been bad mouthing me along with his friends when my mutual friends were there. He’d also been lying to me about looking for work (although he did get a job right before I dumped him) and lying about not smoking while telling his friends that I was forcing him to quit (which I never asked him to do) so he was smoking with them defiantly cuz I was so controlling about it. He’d also made jokes about cheating on me with a coworker once he DID find work…never found out if he actually did tho. He was so nice to me otherwise, I had no clue what an actual tool he was. His ignoring my mistreatment was the only sign, and really, that should have been a big red flag. It’s hard to stand up to people you feel loyal to, but allowing them to mistreat (or abuse in your case) someone you love? Unacceptable.
Jeez, sorry again that was so long.
What. Asshole. Friends. And yeah, he didn’t win a medal either.
It’s weird when you’re in a situation and you don’t even consider the fact that you DESERVE common decency…and then you get out and you just do a facepalm every time you think about it.
If it was that easy to see it, the world would be a different place. No reason to blame oneself. You can only train your bullshitometer.
My heart goes out to you.
Also I would like Science to figure out why on earth some people are so unbelievably awful 😦
Science is in. It is mostly “because other people were awful to them, and they didn’t find ways to cope with it.”
This is a staranise appreciation post.
Wow, no idea what happened, but somehow my computer sent that reply before I was done signing it last night. So, um, yeah, that was me appreciating staranise and science.
I know I’m not supposed to be all DTMFA, but it really bugs me that clear emotional abuse by the LW’s family AND partner is being considered a possibly acceptable “price of admission.”
Hey. No one is condoning emotional abuse, or advising the LW to stay and accept it. At all. But staying vs. going is her choice. Not our choice. If she chooses to stay, she is choosing to accept the horribleness with the knowledge that it probably won’t get better. Pointing that out is not ignoring the abuse or advising her to accept it, it’s putting it in very bald, simple terms that don’t presume we can order her to do something. We called it abuse in the OP. We advised the LW to leave. But we also honored her specific request to suggest some strategies that might help her in the here and now.
Personally, I would be happy never to see that particular acronym again. Not because I don’t think people should break up with people who abuse you or make you unhappy, I advocate breaking up all the time here even for people who are really great but not quite for you and remind people they don’t even owe the other person a reason. “I prefer not to” is a reason. But I think that “DTMFA” can be condescending and obvious as fuck and often it comes across as “God you’re stupid if you stay.” Is that what someone who is being emotionally abused needs to hear from a parade of strangers?
So if you have a story or steps to add, please add it. But save your “I’m the sole courageous hero who sees what’s really happening here” for another website.
It’s true that I shouldn’t have given such a knee-jerk response, and that my own baggage is coming into play here. There is something in the phrase “price of admission” that hits all my buttons, particularly when it’s applied to emotional abuse. Probably because I was told so many times, by so many people who should have supported me, that the abuse I was receiving from my partner was exactly that.
But you are right as ever. I’m sorry for using judgey language and not taking the time to give a more considered, compassionate response. I’m not a Savage Love fan, I don’t think that anyone is “stupid” for staying with an abusive partner (particularly given how long I have stayed with abusive partners of my own), and I really only used the acronym because you did. I was being a bit flippant, which I probably shouldn’t have been, and didn’t mean to endorse the whole DTMFA philosophy or whatever.
However, I don’t think I’m the only person who noticed or was willing to call it abuse, and never indicated that I was. My issue was with (what I perceived to be) minimization of the LW’s possible future risk by folks who had ALREADY acknowledged that abuse was happening. I’m willing to admit that I was wrong about that perceived minimization and reconsider my opinion and the way that I stated it, but I’m not going to allow you to paint me as some kind of sanctimonious jerk for being worried about it in the first place.
My tone was also not awesome. Sorry about that and thanks for the response.
Thanks for helping me learn something today! And, you know, on all the other days.
Your apology would have been much better without that last bit.
I think that when you’re giving advice, through a blog or in person, you need to give advice based on where the person asking for help is standing, not your comfy seat on the sidelines.
The LW has clearly communicated that at this point, leaving the SO is out of the question. Basically, she’s over here, the idea of leaving him is waaaay over there (on the other side of a great chasm), and she just can’t conceive of herself getting over there. So she’s asked for help within the context of her staying in this relationship.
Do I think she will eventually have to cross that chasm? Most likely. This relationship is seriously untenable, and signs that fixing it will be a team effort aren’t just few and far between, they are absolutely absent. And since she can’t fix it on her own, that doesn’t bode well.
But she’s not done trying; she said so. Maybe (hopefully) some of the great advice people have given on this page will help her in the here and now… though the stories in which folks reported genuinely good outcomes involve a bit more participation on the SO’s part than she seems likely to get based on what she’s said, you never know — something may click. Stranger things have happened, and as usual the Awkward Army has given some pretty awesome advice.
If that doesn’t happen, hopefully the process of trying those things will have helped her grow stronger and get better perspective on her situation. If nothing else, I think it will help counter some of the gaslighting, which will itself give her courage and strength. And when she is satisfied that she really has given him/the relationship everything it makes any sense to give, she will be ready to make the leap across that chasm.
But she has to get there her own way. We all do.
Mouse: I’m not the LW, but I can say that seeing people parse stuff out in the comments here rather than just saying “DTMFA” has helped me to see things in my life from a different perspective. This blog is here for pointing out the not-so-obvious to people who are not so good at social stuff, after all! 😛 Personally, it’s harder for me to do things–even emotional things–without understanding the “why” of them, and having someone spell out “this man’s treatment of me was the *baseline* of a good relationship” allows me to realize WHY you need to dump someone even when they’re a big part of what’s been good in your life in a way that will stick far better than a snarky acronym.
I had a Big Super Important Partner who emotionally supported me after I’d been raped by a previous partner. He was, in most respects, kind and caring. But every time I saw his family, they would say homophobic things (I’m bisexual). I told him, a lot, that I didn’t want to be around his family saying homophobic things because that hurt my feelings, a lot. He told me that it was my fault for “taking it personally”, and that I should give his family another chance, oh but don’t come out to them because then they won’t let me see you. (He was 22.) I got really tired of him refusing to stand up for me, and eventually we broke up, which hurt a lot, because we mutually agreed that our relationship wasn’t working.
I am now with a different guy. When New Boyfriend’s father said it was “disrespectful” that I waited two years to come out to him (incidentally, the second time in my life that I ever saw him was when I came out to him), New Boyfriend said “I don’t appreciate you talking about BlueSkye that way, and if you can’t say something nice about him I don’t want you to say anything at all.” When the dad started to throw a tantrum, my partner and I stood up and left. Partner’s Dad’s behavior was unacceptable and my partner understood that neither he nor I had to put up with it.
This warmed my heart. This comment is a little toaster oven in my heart.
LW, first off, I am so sorry. That sucks.
So, here is my recipe for what I did that helped with Partner’s family.
Backstory: Partner’s family is VERY CATHOLIC. P had the first divorce in his family. I am the second spouse. Partner’s family was not verbally abusive of me directly, it was all very passive-aggressive. Predominantly, they pretended I wasn’t there. When we got engaged, they pretended it hadn’t happened. They ignored me at family dinners. I was “cut out”. They’d snark about “poor (step daughter)” and everything she had to go through – the clear implication being that I was harmful to SD by my mere *presence*.
Every thing I did was done incorrectly: if I helped clear the table, my MIL would follow behind me like I was about to drop all the china, if I helped make the beds, she’d redo them behind me. My FIL would ask set-up questions to get my opinion on something, so he could *then* rant and rave about how wrong (and stupid) I was. P was NOT supportive. P accused me of over-reacting, of provoking them. Parent’s wouldn’t have to redo stuff I’d done if I just would learn their (read The Right) way to do stuff. Cherry on the icing of the cake is they’re also bigoted and narrow-minded.
Well, when this shit was still going on almost a year after our engagement, I knew we’d reached High Noon. Because there was NEVER going to come a bright summer morn where I would wake up and these people would magically NOT be his family any more. There was no good place the current trail was going to take me.
So the first thing I had to bring to the gunfight was A LOT of therapy, resulting in *very* good boundaries and ability to use my words when it comes to personal dealbreakers. Granted, I get to The Last Straw MILES after many other people would (there are REASONS! I’ve had lot’s of therapy, after all). But once I’m there, I can bring strength, commitment and clarity. LW, if you have doubts about yourself in this area, I highly recommend you take the advice for therapy VERY seriously. It’s invaluable, IME.
The second thing I had was a ROBUST Team Me. My family puts the fun back in dysfunctional, but even still they have always backed my play. And I am very fortunate to have a large and supportive group of friends. So I knew I had a HUGE safety net to fall back into. And importantly, P knew I had a safety net.
Here is how it went down in the OK Corral: After yet another disastrous, emotionally draining shitshow of a visit, I laid it out for P. I told him that I WOULD NOT subject myself to another family visit that went forward like that. Further, I told him that I COULD NOT continue our relationship if *P’s behavior* was going to continue to be what it had been. I framed this as the deal breaker that it was “Here is what I need in order for me to be able to stay with you”. I was very frank that I could not continue the engagement expecting my married life to look like *this*, and that if P really didn’t WANT to do this for me and *with* me, we were better off not taking the relationship any further. P would never be happy with me under those circumstances.
After that I was Precise, Polite (all about behaviors, never about the people!), and Specific
1. I needed P to be firmly on Team Me. Otherwise, wtf is the point of getting married? This meant P needed to validate *my* feelings and not minimize the hurt P’s relations’ behavior caused.
2. It was *P’s* job to make it clear to family that *P* needed to have me welcomed to family events and treated with common decency; this was to be done in advance of the next family event.
3. It was *P’s* job to remind his family that I was P’s partner, who needed to be respected as such, in the event that I was being treated badly or ignored at an event.
4. It was *P’s* job to cut off discussions of poor SD, or FILs badgering of me & etc.
The point being, P’s behavior had to make clear to the family that *I* was now P’s family by choice. I insisted that the agreement be that if I had my boundaries crossed, *our* response would be to immediately say “Well, thank you very much, but we do not wish for any more jellied eel, and we are leaving to go have Pie!” and make our exit. Lastly, I told P I would NEVER stay at their home again – either we got a hotel room, P went without me, or we didn’t go at all.
I further refused to pick up any of the anger and baggage P’s family would lay down. I was politely clear that the baggage did not belong to me, nor did I want it, and if anyone was upset that it was still lying unattended on the floor, they were welcome to pick it right on back up if they so chose.
P agreed to all of this. And it was slow. And there were some occasions of me leaving, and leaving P behind – for about 2 years, I would only go to the Inlaws in separate cars – followed by much weeping and gnashing of teeth. I took the path of forgiving some of these transgressions of *his* behavior – AFTER I had followed through on what I said *I* was going to do. And made it clear that future behavior had to meet the agreement or the wedding date was off. Slowly over time, his behavior shaped in the right direction.
His family took MUCH longer to come around. We wound up eloping, and they sent us no acknowledgement. Only one of P’s SILs came to the baby shower (she had also married into the family and felt similarly badly treated). P’s parents didn’t even come to see our kid until he was 6mo – at the Christening.
Now, they probably talk about me. Sometimes they are still crappy and snarky. But we interact only on the terms I originally set out. A few years back, my inlaws finally were able to be civil enough on a regular enough basis that we started staying there overnight again. I expect their last grandchild has a LOT to do with this, but I really don’t care about their motivations. I just wanted the behavior to change.
Good luck, LW, I hope this helps.
“Well, thank you very much, but we do not wish for any more jellied eel, and we are leaving to go have Pie!”
Heee! This comment was awesome. (And, as someone who had issues with that when my relationship was LDR, and am now anticipating/dreading my parents’ visit soon, I wish I could send this comment back in time to tell myself what to do!)
(Also, fellow Shaker, I see. *grin* Hi!)
Rats! inadvertent HTMLfail. Inside the marks I noted that I am a fangirl (in a totes not stalky way!) of you, macavitykitsune. 🙂
Omg likewise! ^___^
Oh man, where is JupiterPluvius these days? Jellied eels is one of the greatest comments in the history of ever.
eyenorite! I have seen JP pop up once or twice over at Shakesville, but zie is sorely missed.
Can I just say that it makes me really happy that so many of us who make each other snort with laughter have sort of migrated around the same blogs? It really warms my icy heart.
Unlurking to reply. Ohai fellow Shakers! I saw “jellied eels” and “pie” and went “OMG a Shakesville reference!” *nerdsquee* It makes me happy to see the ‘blog-circle-migrations’ as well. ❤
Me too! *jumps into Christmas tree
It makes me happy, too, to see Shakers and former Shapelings on new blogs that I find interesting.
(Actually, SM, you’re the reason I looked further into this blog, from my happy memories of Shapely Prose… although I used a different handle there (and still use it on Shakesville) than here)
“I was politely clear that the baggage did not belong to me, nor did I want it, and if anyone
was upset that it was still lying unattended on the floor, they were welcome to pick it right on back up if they so chose.”
Massive kudos to you for what you were able to achieve here – well done!
Incidentally, my future MIL was treated much like this by her in-laws and perhaps partly because of the difficulty she had, she absolutely *rocks* as a mother-in-law. Reading these stories makes me so grateful, but I also think it’s worth saying that the lessons you’ve learnt here – and the strength you clearly have – will help make you a fantastic mother-in-law and grandparent, if those roles present themselves later on. 🙂
Yes, if I were the LW, guns ablazin ultimatum is the road I would take, even if I didn’t want to leave. I understand not wanting to leave! It’s so hard when you can see the happily ever after in your mind and if you break up, then it’s *poof* gone forever. But as I see it, with the current situation, it’s no more likely to happen than if the LW walked out today.
But the LW cannot fix this situation herself — the fiance has to get on board with managing his own family. So far he’s deployed some serious nastiness to shut down the conversation that needs to happen. (This is a very bad sign, but we’re working with what we’ve got here.) It was suggested up thread that if LW is so dedicated to staying he probably knows this, so he doesn’t really have to address the issue if he doesn’t want to. (Spoiler: he doesn’t!) So, if it were me, I’d force an issue this big. And i would be ready to leave, even if i hoped it would not come to that. There’s been lots of good advice about different solutions offered here and I think a reasonable, loving partner could help craft a blueprint for change that can work. The change doesn’t need to happen all at once, but the intent has to be strong and true.
The LW says his family comes first to him even when they are being beyond horrible, but he’s getting married now. To me, that has to change. I don’t know that that is something you can force a person to do though. If they have had it laid out for them and they still choose not to value their life partner… What chance does the marriage have then? How can that be enough love?
Therein lies the rub, no? I agree with pretty much everything here, except…
FWIW, I don’t consider this kind of line in the sand an ultimatum. To me, an ultimatum has the form “You have to do this OR ELSE!!” I do not endorse ultimata.
The framing instead is this: “This is my boundary, and if you can’t/won’t/don’t honor that, the consequence will be for me to take $_Steps_enforcing_boundary.” It’s not in retribution, it’s not punishment, it’s not manipulation – which are all things an ultimatum is intended to be. I am not doing anything TO somebody else by stating my boundary OR by enforcing it. I get to be the boss of MY bubble (as weeIrish is known and encouraged to say), and P was/is the boss of P’s bubble.
P was not forced. P got to choose. This is important, b/c the other thing is, if the response is coerced (or forced), the underlying resentment would be toxic to the relationship anyway.And I didn’t require an answer right then and there. As a matter of fact, after I’d said my piece, I tabled all discussion for a couple of days – we were still maintaining separate abodes at that point, so I went back to my place and made busy with friends. I think that P chose wisely ;->
Now, before I laid out the “this far and no farther” line, P would also be pretty mean about the whole situation. Which was another reason not to tolerate this. Life is to short to include scheduled meaness, yanno? So while I agree with you that as described, LWs BF exhibits a ton of red flags that bode ill, perhaps the situation is not hopeless.
And were I on Team LW in person rather than on the interwebs, I would really encourage her to explore this “I’m not leaving” stance as well.
I think this is just a semantics issue, because I agree with you.
My hope for LW is that her fiance is using the meanness to avoid dealing with the issue and if he is forced to reckon with it he will concede. Maybe he gets trapped in a defensiveness loop where he has to defend to family and his love of them before he can see what’s going on. But he doesn’t need to feel differently about his family — he can still love them while not letting them abuse LW. The will be consequences though, so he needs to be clear what side he’s on.
My family are awful and abusive people and they don’t like my husband. I sometimes act badly towards my husband because I am still learning what healthy adult communication looks like. And sometimes I don’t stand up for my husband when my family are being cruel to him.
But I TRY! And if I ever blamed him for their behaviour in the heat of the moment, I’d apologise – even if I still blame myself for the way they act. I might say “oh, that, well, that’s just because they’re fond of you!” when I know damn well it’s not true, but I’d never say he lied about the incident occurring. Because I know it’s not him, it’s them. I know he’s a nice person and it’s their behaviour that is all kinds of fucked up. I want to cut contact with them – or at least stand up to them more often – but it’s really tough. It’s like I’m a puppet and they can cut my strings. But I pick myself up and keep trying. Because I love him, and even if I often believe that I truly deserve their awful treatment, I never believe he does.
The dynamics of these families are weird, as you’ve probably observed. I’m sure a lot of his bad treatment of you is based on what he thinks relationships should be like, and also fitting in, in a way – they’re mean to you and so is he, or they’ll be worse to him than they already are. It’s like the gang of playground bullies. He’s the kid who joined the bullies to avoid being a victim. Maybe his heart wasn’t in it at first. But eventually, you’re no longer doing things just to fit in, you’re just doing them.
From your letter, I simply don’t get the sense that he’s trying – that he’s trying to have a healthy relationship with you, but the childhood programming overrides it. That he’s trying to set boundaries with them, but he keeps getting sucked back in. But that’s besides the point, ’cause it’s not me he needs to impress with sincere apologies and concrete evidence that he’s changing his ways – it’s you.
You say there’s no question of you leaving him… well, I guess he knows that too.
“You say there’s no question of you leaving him… well, I guess he knows that too.”
Oooooh, this hit me in the gut.
Hi, My family can be a lot to handle. My mom is clingy and pushed my wife’s boundaries in a passive aggressive way. Not in a mean way. She really likes my wife. She just wanted a LOT more time commitment than was comfortable at the time. Like a family gathering didn’t count unless everyone stayed over for the night. Also I have two brothers who think clever and funny can be more important than being nice. The whole crew of menfolk have skin like elephants are super smart and know deep in their bones that conversations can be won. So it wasn’t the same thing you’ve had to deal with. But she didn’t like it.
What I wanted to say was that it was *really* hard for me to see what her complaint was. I mean, I could hear her words. I knew what they all meant but I just didn’t get it. I’d learned to deal with it. It was to me like water to a fish. Little brother cracked a play on words that was sort of funny. But also implied she was a hooker. She go pissed. I had to have the problem explained to me. Then I had to try and defend him. Because I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean. My point is that family can be a real blind spot. Even when they’re fucked up you love them. You identify with them and can see criticism of them as criticism of you. You want them to be better.
The LW’s partner might be great, really great, in every other way but this one. In this one there are not good at all. Maybe that can be fixed, maybe it cannot. But I wouldn’t dump them yet.
So here’s my suggestion, based in part on what I went through and in part on what I’ve seen other’s do.
1. LW needs a hobby and a friend outside of this situation. This hobby and friend need to plausibly require time at family gatherings. Yoga’s good, so is scrap booking or crossfit or whatever. This is where she will be instead of with the Darth Famillius. Partner can say “Sorry she’s really into HOBBY and there was a big event.”
2. LW needs to let partner know that they can have both. Her avoiding the family is not the same thing as her rejecting him. She may have to commit to half a day here and there. Like Christmas or thanksgiving or whatever.
3. LW needs to let partner know that blaming LW for the crappy family is NOK and needs to stop NOW.
I love “Darth Familius”. That is all.
LW, at this point I think it’s safe to say that your partner’s family is never going to take you to their loving bosom like the daughter they always wished they had. Which is probably just as well, because that would be terrifying, I think.
However, it is eminently reasonable to expect your partner to be Team You. And at this point, he clearly is not. And that is NOT OKAY. I am also pessimistic that he will change, but there’s a chance that he could, so…
My inclination would be to have a safe place that I could go to and get away from him every time he starts browbeating you. “Partner, this is not okay behavior from someone whom is supposed to be on Team Me, and I choose not to put up with it. ” This is not acceptable behavior, and when he engages in it, he loses the pleasure of your presence. I also suggest having an internal script for while you do this – I remember one Awkwardeer would mentally tag “you think” onto the end of hir partner’s attempts at gaslighting. Just remember that HE IS WRONG. Nobody deserves the treatment you’re describing. And be sure to genuinely thank him when he *does* act like a decent human being. (No, he doesn’t really deserve the cookie, but in behavior shaping meeting the lowest criteria has to be reinforced before you can raise the bar.)
Also, THERAPY. Yes yesity yes. In my case, just saying out loud to another human how I felt about my ex let me articulate the thought “I don’t actually like him. Like, at ALL. Why am I working so hard to save this?” It gave me a safe place to say things that felt very scary.
Good luck, LW. You deserve better than this, and I hope you find it.
Yes, I agree, the family is most likely a lost cause and honestly that’s probably for the best. I definitely nth taking a huge break from them. Maybe it will help reset things, but if nothing else it gives the LW a break from dealing with it and space to build up your reserves of “No, I am not imagining it, they really are that awful!” so that if the LW decides to dip her toe in seeing them again, she can be ready to immediately leave at the first hint of abuse.
And yes, that brings it to the LW’s partner needing to be on Team You. If he can’t or won’t do that (doesn’t matter why FYI, sometimes it can be helpful to know why, but it is what he does that matters) then that is not OK and either he needs to change that ASAP or if the LW chooses to stay she will have to accept he isn’t going to be on Team You regarding his family and maybe not regarding other things in the future too.
From my own experience, my parents are big boundary pushers with the best intentions. They just want to see us, they just want us to come do X,Y & Z, they just want everyone together, etc. It all comes from a place of love, but that doesn’t mean I can’t insist on boundaries that my husband and I need. So yeah, my husband and I have occasionally had some rough times because of my family, but I decided long ago that I had to have his back and that we are a team. Do I make mistakes? Sure, I’m far from perfect, but I am on his team, I deal with my family when they are pushing and make sure they know it is coming from me/us and I do my very best to not fall into old child/parent patterns where I think/say “Oh, that’s just how my parents are…”. An example of the “we just wanted to see everyone, it will all work out” attitude:
For Thanksgiving last year, we had invited my parents and my two brothers and their wives and our one nephew to come to our house. My husband was on call and couldn’t travel, so we thought it would be nice to invite those that were available since it was pushing it but small enough for us to host comfortably, my sister and her fiance had other plans. Well, sometime in the week prior to Thanksgiving, my Mom sent an offhand e-mail to me saying that my sister’s plans had fallen through and she and her fiance weer flying in to my parents and then would drive over and everyone could be together for Thanksgiving and wasn’t that just awesome. I was stunned and when I told my husband he was pissed as this was just another example in a long line of my parents pushing and assuming around stuff like this. Well, we decided to put our foot/feet down! I called my Mom and my Dad got on the phone and I told them that we weren’t wiling to host that many people and that we should have been asked before plans were made. We understood that they probably wouldn’t be able to come to our house now as my sister had already booked her flight and we would still have either or both of my brothers and their families if they wanted or they could go to my Mom’s house instead if they wanted. My parents were stunned in their turn and tried to see if they could make it work by some/all staying in hotels or only coming for a couple hours or something, but I stood my ground. We all hung up. My Mom and Dad called back in a few hours to apologize for not handling the first call well and then apologized for assuming instead of asking us ahead of time and all that. Since then, they have both been much better about asking us first instead of assuming, but they still are pushy about things sometimes.
Point of the long story is my husband and I are on the same team. I know my husband and I would not be in a good place if I wasn’t on his team about my family’s boundary pushing.
2. Were you able to leave an important, serious relationship that wasn’t working and then rebuild your life into something happier? If so, what worked?
I left my husband after only 4 months of marriage. It wasn’t just that our relationship wasn’t working, but that he couldn’t play nice with my family and his mother wouldn’t play nice with me.
When I was still trying to save our marriage, I called his mother one day, because I respected her and I wanted her help. I told her briefly and non-hysterically about the problems I was having with her son (he had control issues and had choked me twice) and I told her what I was doing about it (psychiatrist, medication, psychologist, counselor, church, bible study) and I asked her if she could meet with both of us and help me talk to my husband.
Her response? “You just need to try harder.”
That was not THE moment I left, but it was one of hundreds of little moments that propelled me out the door.
LW, I want to tell you about how much better it can be on the other side. It’s been 2 years now. I’m healthier and I’ve attracted other healthy people to me. My new boyfriend’s mother crocheted me a blanket for Christmas. My mother told my new boyfriend that she’s so happy for us and she’s been so impressed with his respect for me. It has taken me a long time to get used to having someone in my life who consistently treats me with care and respect, but now that I’m used to it, I can’t imagine living my life any other way.
You absolutely deserve that care and respect too.
“You just need to try harder” is the household motto scrawled under the crest of fucked-up, verbal abuse. Any time I hear this line, I feel my hackles go up because it’s bullshit. Mental health problems? “Try harder.” Abusive relationship? “Try harder.”
The last book I read when I was trying to “save the marriage” was The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle. I’m so glad I got out of that situation before I fell any deeper down the submission/complimentarian/wife-as-property rabbit hole.
Aaaah omg congratulations on getting out of that.
I am so glad you got out of that relationship. Choking is a good predictor of likeliness to attempt/succeed at murder the victim later on. I can’t remember whether that tidbit came from Gavin de Becker.
I have heard it in other places, with cites; I haven’t read Gift of Fear yet. But yeah, once I learned that, I started getting all worried whenever anyone included choking in the litany of abusive behaviors.
Ah, here we go: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-06-24-choking_N.htm
Article describes how some states are making choking a crime on its own because it’s a precursor to murder, with the snippet:
“A 2008 study in the Journal of Emergency Medicine found 43% of women who were murdered in domestic assaults and 45% who were victims of attempted murder had been choked in the past year by their male partners.”
It also mentions how in some places, strangulation is not illegal or not prosecuted or prosecuted as misdemeanor (which makes me wonder why it’s not assault or aggravated assault, but IANAL).
Ultimately, I was choked or smothered a total of 4 times before I left. In the last 2 weeks of our marriage (which I didn’t know at the time was almost over) I had actually resigned myself to my fate. I had a terminal disease that I was going to die from, I just didn’t know when.
And then, you know, I ran like hell.
I am so sorry you went through that. And really glad you ran. Really glad.
That passage in Corinthians (you know, “Love forgives all things” etc) should come with a giant fucking DOES NOT APPLY TO ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS disclaimer.
Amen to that!!
Wouldn’t you know, that passage was part of our vows.
My parents were Scapegoat and her partner. My mom decided to put up with it and marry my dad anyway. His parents were always completely horrible to both of them, but dad insisted that family was important and everybody had to put up with them. Then my dad starting being emotionally abusive to my mother, too, in many of the same ways. And by the time my brother and I were kids, dad and his parents were emotionally abusive of us, too.
My grandfather was the one of them who was least awful to me, and I was his favorite. He died when I was 14, just as I was starting to realize that he was really an asshole.
My grandmother, on the other hand, had been very emotionally abusive of me since I was 6 or 7, and continued to be right up until she died in December (twenty years after my grandfather died). I had moved far away and was able to make boundaries about how often I spoke to her and saw her — I’d see her once or twice when I visited, call her on her birthday OR mother’s day, but not both. My mother was not allowed to do that. Instead, she was emotionally blackmailed into helped my grandmother around the house, taking her into my parents house when she got sick and waiting on her hand and foot (my grandmother used to call her a servant), paying for her cable, newspaper, pool service, cleaning service, nursing service, and other things, even though my grandmother had the money for it (she wanted to save it for her other son). My mother would never make good boundaries, because it had become completely ingrained that it wasn’t ok to do so. My father would occasionally reprimand my grandmother if she did something really awful right in front of him, but always in such a way that what he did left my mother and anyone else present as upset as what my grandmother had done.
Let me tell you, the primary emotion I felt when my grandmother died was relief. I was, more than anything else, glad she was gone, that I and my mother would never have to deal with her again. Oh, I mourned, too, of course, but mostly I mourned for the grandmother she could have been, but wasn’t. She was a horrible human being, and she was abusive of everyone around her, but especially of us.
When I was a teen, I wanted so badly for my mother to leave my father and take us with her, so we didn’t have to deal with him or his mother (as often). She never did.
I am still, despite decades of therapy, not terribly good at making boundaries with my family, although I’ve gotten a lot better at making boundaries with other people. I have, at least, learned from my mother’s mistakes: My fiancee gets to set all her own boundaries with my family, and I will back her on them as hard as I can. When she tells me my family is treating me badly, I try to listen to her, even if I can’t bring myself to do anything about it (and then I go talk to my therapist).
Scapegoat, whatever you choose for yourself, I beg you, don’t do to your kids what my parents did to me. Don’t tell them they aren’t allowed to make boundaries when it comes to family, and don’t let your partner tell them that. Don’t put them in situations where they are abused. Please.
Yes. I won’t pretend that my grandmother (father’s mother) was anywhere as emotionally abusive as this, but she was very dismissive of my mother. I can remember being terribly shocked as a 12 yr old when she ranted at me about my mom having a trip to see her family one summer (mom’s family lived over 1,000 miles away) and leaving the kids to be cared for by dad and his parents. Like she didn’t have the right to have some time with her own parents.
But it wasn’t until I was 19 that I was able to call her on it. I didn’t know how to use my words in response to an adult behaving inappropriately when I was younger. (Incidentally, the first time I called her on it was when I was going home for Christmas for the first time after moving to Bigger City. My aunt and grandmother picked me up at the airport because both parents were working. We got home and the house was a mess (lots of kids and pets and both parents working can do that). I put my stuff away and started cleaning. Granny started bitching about how lazy my mom was. I gave her the evil eye and said “Shut up and help clean or get the hell out. I don’t want to hear it.” Which is terribly rude and I still can’t believe I said it to her, but it had a galvanizing effect. She never complained about mom in front of me again.)
Please read this paragraph that you wrote:
“Now, by and large, my fiance is a very sweet guy. But he is fiercely loyal – and unfortunately, his first loyalty is to his family. He fully acknowledges that they are horrible. However, every conversation I have with him about this always turns back to what a bitch I am, and how hard I make it for them to be nice to me. He’s blamed me for “driving away” the friends who broke into our home and partied in it without asking, when they’re the ones who chose to uninvite me from all their events. (To be fair, I wouldn’t have hung out with them anyway.) He’s blamed me for provoking his father into screaming at me (apparently, by having a private conversation with a different person in a different room which he then inserted himself into). He’s told me that I just have to deal with it, that he doesn’t want to hear it – has even gone so far as to leave the room in a huff if I so much as bring one of these incidents up.”
In one paragraph, you describe your fiance as:
— calling you a “bitch” for causing all this family drama.
— saying you are responsible for his father eavesdropping on a conversation and then screaming at you and forcing you to be silent in his house for the rest of the day.
— having done the active work of driving away people who chose to uninvite you from their lives.
— giving you the ultimatum that you deal with it all and never ever talk about it again.
Your fiance is complicit in the treatment you receive from his family. He wants you to accept it without complaint, and when you do complain, he explains it all away by blaming you because people treat you badly. Then when you try to talk about it, he calls you awful names and huffs off like a three year old who isn’t grown up enough to have a civil discussion about a hard issue.
My advice to you is to tell your fiance, “The way we are dealing with your family isn’t working for me, and it’s not working for you, either, since it leads to fights where you call me a bitch and otherwise act like a jerk. I want to do couples counseling on this issue. We need help working out a plan where you can be happy with your interactions with your family and I don’t feel victimized and neither of us is angry enough to call the other one a bitch.”
If he won’t do it, that means he doesn’t want to change, and then you have two choices. (1) Accept that his family, as it is, and with his current ways of dealing with them, is the price of admission to this wonderful relationship. (2) Leave.
If my spouse started calling me a bitch for ANY reason, I’d be looking at making him into my ex-spouse. And if the reason was something that was clearly not my fault? I wouldn’t even look back. If you choose to stay, then you are choosing to be treated like that, and I guess that’s your choice. Just make sure you understand that you are, in fact, choosing this, because he’s told you he doesn’t want to change. Offer him the chance to change his mind, but if he continues to talk and act like what he’s doing is okay, BELIEVE him. Make your choices based on what’s true (he calls you a bitch because his family treats you badly and you don’t want to accept that treatment) and not on what you wish were true (he’s a totally great guy and not at all complicit in this on-going cycle of people he loves treating you badly).
There’s a narrative going around (mostly inside our heads) that ‘If I leave after x amount of years, all that time will have been totally wasted! I’ll never get it back!’. I don’t think I’d ever call it time wasted, at least not for you. You say he’s been awesome and helped you get over your abusive past relationships which is great! What many other people above have pointed out is that he’s also given you a baseline for what a good boyfriend should look like. (Mostly. I’m talking about his un-detailed awesome bits that you know and we don’t, not the crappy stuff) If you should want to leave, keep this stuff in mind. It wasn’t time wasted, and while I don’t know how old you are, I’d bet that 5.5 years isn’t your whole life. Remembering this has helped me get through a couple of long term breakups.
If you don’t want to leave, I think the Captain’s advice on how to deal with one of the most horrible families I’d ever heard of is pretty good. One of the things you’re going to find out when you start putting her advice in place is how much your boyfriend wants to change. I think that’s going to be a huge clue as to how much you can do to make your life better with him and the horrible people. Maybe (in my magical unicorn world) what he needs is a plan and once he has one he’ll be onboard with Team You. Once the stress is off you dealing with his horrible people maybe there won’t be any new ammunition for fights and he can be talked through why making it all about you is such bullshit. Of course, this is a lot of work on you, but I think it’s pretty obvious by now that he’s not going to magically change and if you want to continue with him, it’s kinda on you. And that’s a lot of maybes.
That being said, this whole thing seriously sucks for you, and everyone who mentioned ‘if you think it’s bad now, wait until you have kids’ is 100% right. Making that decision for yourself is one thing, bringing kids into it is much, much harder to deal with. My husband and I have what everyone would consider a good marriage with both of us having supportive families and being pregnant is stressful for us. I can’t imagine what those horrible people would do to you if you guys had children.
The only advice I have, if you want to stay in the relationship, is to give yourself space. If you can’t move out of state (if you stay together, look into doing this soon; you’ll be able to make new sets of friends and not have to see his family every weekend), stop going to family events. My sister is dating a guy, and there are toxic family problems there; so much so that they broke up over those stresses once and then got back together. When they started dating again, I told my sister they should stop hanging out as a couple around families. They need to remove themselves from the situations and figure out if their relationship was working without the pressure of being a couple in a toxic environment. LW, I don’t know if this will work for you; it sounds like distance is required, but if your partner doesn’t advocate for you, your options will get more limited over time until your only choice will be ‘Leave.’
Ok, I am not in that situation on either side, but my Mom’s side of the family is the awful-screwed-up-family. And my Dad was in a similar position…except my Dad was fine with my Mom’s family disliking him because he hated them. What I have seen over the years, is that as much as my Mom has suffered because of her family, and as much as she has come to see just how screwed up they are, they are still family. It is still hard to hear criticism. For a long time, if my Dad ever said something outright hostile about my Mom’s family, no matter how true it was, it ended in my Mom being either hurt or angry. So, this won’t be an easy solution. The trick is to find enough distance that it doesn’t wreck your relationship.
The most important thing for my Dad was getting to the “I don’t care” part. He knows my Mom’s family is at best lukewarm about him, and he knows they can be ignorant and nasty. He has just distanced himself from it. It isn’t his problem. He isn’t forced to go to more family events than necessary, but when he does go, while he make an effort to keep his mouth shut, he also has the option to walk out.
Staying away (both literally and figuratively) is also important. He doesn’t meddle with my Mom’s family, or try to fix them. When he visits, he doesn’t have long, deep conversations. He doesn’t invite random friends to stay with him- in fact, my parents purposefully mostly go TO my grandparents rather than vice-versa. Yes, about once a year my parents invite my grandparents to visit, as the obligatory family visit, but that is all. My Mom knows my Dad doesn’t like my family (and she gets exasperated with them too), so she allows him to distance himself.
Talk to your fiance/bf/husband (sorry, I forget what he is), and go through the options. He is angry you won’t be close to his family. Explain to him that you understand family is important to him. You just cannot be around his family if they are abusive all the time. And being around them like that will cause more conflict. Try to recommend your separation as a form of peace-keeping – if you can’t see his family, they can’t be mean to you, and he can’t get mad you are alienating them.
The really hard part though, is that if you have kids, you cannot keep them away from his family unless he cuts ties. My Mom’s family is screwed up, and I wish she had cut ties with some of them, but they weren’t outright abusive or anything, so it wasn’t so bad. But do you want your kids around these people? If you don’t, then you maybe need to re-think what you are doing. Because if your hubby won’t cut ties with his family, then he WILL want your kids to be part of that family.
I’m going to echo some of the other commenters here… You get to choose your price of admission, so whatever it is (awful family, messiness, too much garlic in their cooking, abuse) that is worth that person/relationship to you is worth it.
But… when you have kids, you’re also choosing their price of admission for being in your family – without knowing whether the trade-off will be worth it to them or not. So I would think long and hard about having kids in this particular family – are you able to protect them from nastiness or abuse? Are you willing to “take away” one set of grandparents from your kids, (if it’s the only acceptable result of the grandparents’ behavior)? Are you willing to tolerate their behavior for however long if they end up being wonderful grandparents? Will their dad support you through all of this?
I am coming at this from the perspective of the partner with the abusive family.
I come from a very broken family. Not only did my mother and step-father(s) have substance abuse issues but there was also a steady stream of physical, emotional and sexual abuse. There is a lot of toxicity in my family, but I, too, describe myself as a very loyal person and I had two underage siblings that I felt keenly responsible for. I also, to this day, love my family fiercely. Basically, I had my own reasons for needing and wanting to maintain contact with my family. It also took me a very long time to enter therapy for the abuse I’d undergone. This was, in part, because of the stigma of therapy and also in part because of the ineffectiveness I’d experienced with therapy as a child (school therapists predominantly).
I met my current partner when I was 14. We were friends for two years before we entered a relationship together. My relationship before my partner was not a healthy one either. We have now been together for 14 years. For 14 years, he’s had to deal with members of my family that are abusive, but only to an extent.
LW, as someone who has been in the position that your boyfriend is in — someone who loves and wants to be loyal to their family and protect them and maintain those relationships, there are some things that both you and he need to realize.
1.) The interactions with the family are and should be completely his responsibility. JenniferP is absolutely and completely correct. Make him maintain all those relationships. It is HIS choice to be a part of that toxicity for whatever reasons he has, but you are not obligated. You can love someone and be with them and still have people that they like and you do not. You can maintain separate circles of connections. That is absolutely and completely ok.
I understand there’s both a desire and a pressure to do a lot together and share friends/family circles, but that’s not a requirement. Both my partner and I have people that we don’t like to be around that are the other’s family or friend. We have solved this by setting ground rules around them. There are rules about who is allowed into our homes, how often and when. There are rules/conditions about going out with said people.
2.) You have no obligation to be nice, respectful, or otherwise positive towards his family or friends. While you shouldn’t vent about them to him (because this is going to put him in a place where he feels he needs to be defensive), you do not have to like them at all. It is perfectly fine to say, “I do not like your family and these friends. They don’t treat me very well and I don’t think they treat you very well either. My reasons are X, Y, Z. Because of this, I do not want to be around them. Please make your plans without me and lets negotiate some boundaries for them around the house/social events.”
IF he gets upset and starts badmouthing you, putting you down, calling you names, etc., leave. I mean this in both senses. Leave the situation. Its a clear way to set your boundary that you will not allow him to talk to you that way. You can, if you want, give him time to cool off and come back to the conversation. You might even try different methods of communication. My partner and I had to use letters sometimes because I literally had issues talking about things and not getting caught up in a roil of emotions on some topics. But if he continually namecalls you, then I suggest leaving the relationship for real because. . . .
3.) Abusive behavior tends to beget abusive behavior. Children who were abused often become abusive adults. It is often a self-perpetuating behavior. He needs to realize this as well as you do. We do not escape toxic environments unharmed. We carry the poison in our systems until we figure out a way to clean them out. If we don’t figure out how, then often times it accumulates and our own behavior will escalate to become equally as toxic if not more than what we dealt with. It festers.
He may be mostly wonderful and not realizing that he’s perpetuating the abuse. An idea might be to go, “Boyfriend, I love you very much and I realize that both of us have been in abusive situations. I thought maybe we could look over some things about dealing with the aftermath together to help us.” Then, you show him to a site that helps. The internet is a great research tool and its wonderful for helping victims/survivors learn and get help before they are ready to go to therapy or otherwise deal with their abuse. I don’t have any great links offhand, but I know I found so many (including this site as well as feministing, feministe, racialicious, etc.) that helped me over time to both deal with my abuse in a healthier way and to become more introspective and careful of my own behavior.
4.) Finally, its his responsibility to set the boundaries and insulate you from the people that he’s around that are toxic to you. Its his choice to engage in relationships with them that may be toxic, and that, while not ideal, is still his choice. If he makes that choice, he needs to also make the choice to keep that negativity from you. If he doesn’t, then its not a good situation long term, which again you don’t want to hear, but its still true.
Here’s what I did for my partner. I established clear boundaries with my family. If they badmouthed him or became abusive or negative towards him, in any way, we left the situation. Not only would we leave, but *I* instigated leaving. I set the clear signal that it was not ok to treat the person I love this way. I explicitly stated it and backed it up with *my* actions. I did that when my partner was around and when he wasn’t. I’d listen to criticisms (I don’t think X is great for you because of Y reasons) but if they became personal attacks, I cut off the conversations. I had to do it universally. I would hang up the phone on my mother. I would stop talking to her for periods of time. I’d go into town to visit and just see my siblings and basically ignore my mother. I did the same thing with my grandfather. They got the message. If they wanted to see or have a relationship with me, they could *not* put down my partner (or his family for that matter). I also didn’t share their negativity towards my partner with my partner unless he asked. I’d vent to other people, but not him. The good thing is that this also eventually lead to me adapting the same protections for myself. I was able to set those same boundaries with them to protect myself.
Ultimately, dear LW, you cannot change your boyfriend. All you can do is use your words to clearly convey the situation, set your boundaries, and stick with them. JenniferP has some awesome suggestions for that. After that, its up to him. If he doesn’t make any changes, then you have a decision to make. I get that its a very, very difficult one. My partner helped me recover from being sexually abused as well. He helped me learn to not only be myself, but love myself for who I am. There’s a lot of emotion with that. There’s a lot of safety with that. Its scary and painful to think of leaving that behind. However, you MUST protect yourself. If he can’t stop perpetuating the abuse, if he can’t insulate you from the toxicity of the people who chooses to be around, then you have to decide if you want to continue to be abused or if you want to go find a healthier, happier situation. You can love him so much it hurts, but he has to make a choice to change the situation. If he doesn’t, please don’t let yourself be abused. Please realize that you deserve better. The love and help you got from him is also not an obligation to be with him. His own suffering is not an excuse to inflict it upon others.
LW, I think how you frame this situation when thinking about it and talking about it with your partner is really important.
Your fiance’s family is not the problem. They are a problem – a big problem – but your partner’s behavior is THE problem.
I don’t think sitting down and talking about it like you have before is the solution – it sounds like you both have so much anxiety about having those conversations that they do not go ANYWHERE good, which I totally get. I have been in that place where talking about Problems with a partner leads to emotional meltdowns, triggers, panic attacks, defensiveness and ultimately more bad feelings then you started with.
But you can’t stop communicating about it, either. if you want this to get better. Couples therapy would be great, if you could get your fiance to do that. But since that doesn’t seem like it will happen, here is my suggestion:
Have the conversation in writing, either via email (instant messages–too close to real-time conversation) or with paper letters.
Advantages: You can walk away from it and come back. If you start going to the bad anxious place, you can finish your response when you feel a little more solid.
There is a record: No one can deny things that have been said. I don’t know if this is a problem for you, but bad relationships I’ve been in have included a fair amount of denial from my partner about the nasty things they have said / crushing doubt from me about if I REALLY heard them correctly / worrying that I was making it all up.
It slows down the pace of conversation: You can both think about what you want to say, how you want to articulate it. The slowed down pace can also help stop the escalation of emotions. And for me, anyway, this also REALLY helps me stand my ground and not concede the point just to escape.
Explain the wait you feel. State your needs – that you absolutely seriously need partner to admit that his family treats you badly, and that it is NOT OKAY for him to blame you for their behavior. If you like the Captain’s timeline suggestion, put that in there.
I also want to echo something that other commenters have said – being nice and respectful and supportive and patient with your partner is BASELINE. You deserve better.
I was once with a guy for over 5.5 years. It was the longest relationship I’d had. I thought it was a good one. Yeah, we had some problems, mostly around different sexual appetites, but I thought we’d work it out.
Then one day, he raped me. And after that I realized that this had been going on for years, but I hadn’t quite figured out that coercion and rape go hand in hand.
I know that part isn’t your situation but here’s what is similar: he blamed me. If I hadn’t… If I had… He couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me… This whole thing is bullshit… etc. Once that stuff was going on, there was no chance to get on a better track. He made like he was willing to do some work by setting up a meeting with a couples counselor and then spent the session talking about how he wasn’t ready to do this work or that action. I had to cease contact with him entirely.
And my life is much better now. Not only am I not in any relationship where I feel pressured to (have sex, get on with family, et. al.) but my life is actually moving and I’m planning some things I’m excited about.
Whatever you end up doing, good luck. You’re worth it. I hope that family experiences some big, happy fireworks… in their home. (Not literally)
I have been happily married for 25 years. However, during those 25 years I put up with some seriously ugly and abusive behavior from my husband’s family. A happy marriage doesn’t mean there aren’t fights, and I would have to say that about 90% of our fights have been about his family. It has only been in the last 5 years that enough was enough, and that really came about when we found out our daughter had been abused by a brother-in-law and no one in the family could accept it. Thus, they began turning on my husband the way they had turned on me (and my daughter) from the very beginning.
In my husband’s (and your finance’s) defense, because he was raised in such serious dysfunction it was nearly impossible for him to see it. When I complained about how mean his sister’s were, he would tell me I took things too seriously or that I was making a bigger deal out of it than it really was. Or that he expected bad behavior from them, but I was a bigger person than that.
People do change, and my husband has spent the last several years apologizing for what we went through. Please note how many years this took. It’s not been an easy path, and the person who has suffered more recently is my husband as his eyes have been opened to who they really are and what they did to us.
If you aren’t going to leave (and I have to admit I’m so glad I didn’t), take the steps to protect yourself as the Captain advises. Don’t go places where you can be abused. But you should also require loyalty from him. If his first loyalty is not to you, DO NOT HAVE CHILDREN WITH THIS PERSON!
In addition, you need to understand that if you DO have children with this man they will be 50% his, and from what it sounds, they will be 50% the abusers, to do with as they will. Think long and hard on that one. I can tell you from experience that these people will be no kinder to innocent children than they are to you. TAKE THIS VERY SERIOUSLY.
My story has a happy ending. You are in charge of your own story and you’ll need to choose very carefully what you will do to make your own happy ending.
LW, the commentariat above have given you some lovely insight and advice and I encourage you to give it some serious consideration.
Having survived six years in a relationship with someone with a horribly toxic and dysfunctional family, a few concrete things to try/think about.
Thing the first: I am absolutely, unequivocally echoing the suggestion to cut off contact (on your own behalf, obviously) from partner’s family, and I’d go one further. Don’t just avoid seeing them, ask that he not talk about them to you. Don’t have them to your house, or at the very least not without sufficient notice for you to have other plans away from the house. If you want, you can try framing it with him as “dealing with your family creates a lot of stress for all concerned and, more importantly, it’s not good for our relationship because it creates a lot of discord between the two of us, and I’d like to try and keep us both happy by eliminating the source of that.” He’s free to see his family on his own time, but you want no part of it.
Thing the second: As others have said, your future children loom pretty large in this scenario, not as a threat, but as a real point of consideration before you go any deeper into this relationship. I’d suggest having a good long think with yourself about how you would want to handle interactions with partner’s family around future children. Would you be okay with your children interacting with his toxic family (especially given that it sounds like no one has been able to come out of this family unscathed)? If so, under what circumstances? How would you want to handle holidays, birthdays, graduations, and the slew of other family events that would now potentially involve your children?
Once you’ve thought about all that, sit down and have a talk with your partner. Tell him that in light of the situation with his family, you did some thinking about possible children and want to talk about his ideas about parenting and family involvement. Present this as neutrally as possible, just as a “hey, think we should check in about this” or similar. The big, big question I’d want an answer to if I were you is “what would you do if your family mistreated our child in ways that we both know they’re capable of?” (obviously may need rephrasing to be a bit more neutral). I have a feeling that point blank asking that question is going to get you one of several responses. Best case scenario, it’s an eye-opener to think about this behavior being allowed to continue towards an innocent child and you might be able to start to build some more healthy boundaries, together, around his family. Worst case scenario, he denies that they would ever do that because the conflict with you is actually ALL YOUR FAULT, and so your sweet innocent child would never somehow run afoul of the toxic, abusive behavior of his family. The sort of “not great but not awful” scenario would be him being able to see that he would never want his child treated that way, but not that it’s unhealthy for you and him to be treated that way. If that’s his response, you might be able to work out a sort of middle-ground where he has a relationship with them totally independent of you and any future children, hence why I would suggest this happen after you tell him you want to disengage from them.
The other thing I would say, LW, is to think really hard about all the ways his family are potentially going to sneak into your life if your partner can’t create some boundaries. Your future wedding, all the things involving your future children, holidays, birthdays, all those things that should be wonderful and happy that, as it stands, you’d be forced to deal with their awful, toxic, abusive behavior as part of. You say it’s just this one thing that’s a problem in your relationship, but look at how far that can extend.
LW, apologies if this is off the mark, it sounds as if you feel as though…you owe him? He was so patient, so good to you when you were fighting your way back to the awesome life you deserve, and it seems like it would be selfish and rotten to break up with him after all that, right? That you owe him to stick around for years and years to try and help with HIS crap because that’s fair?
You don’t owe him that. He stuck around because he wanted to. He got something out of helping you and holding your hand – the joy of your company, the happy feeling of helping someone, whatever. He wasn’t accumulating a debt that you are required to pay off. (And if he WERE sticking around because he figured he could use it against you, that’s loansharking and very, very evil. But I’m assuming here that’s not the case.) He was free to leave, or not, at any time.
Also, people who grow up in horrible dysfunctional families are often pretty good at managing things when they’re dysfunctional. It’s the normal, non-dysfunctional stuff they don’t manage so well. Dysfunctional seems normal and comfortable and that’s probably a way of being he is not ready to give up – hence the resistance to therapy. But he is willing to drag you down into it.
Also ALSO, please listen to all the great advice here. You say you can’t leave him, but whatever you decide to do can’t be “let’s just keep on hoping things will get better”. It won’t work.
“Also, people who grow up in horrible dysfunctional families are often pretty good at managing things when they’re dysfunctional. It’s the normal, non-dysfunctional stuff they don’t manage so well. Dysfunctional seems normal and comfortable and that’s probably a way of being he is not ready to give up – hence the resistance to therapy.”
Wow–that’s really a lightbulb for me. Thank you for this.
LW – I don’t know that I have anything new to add. I have agreed with the majority of the answers here. I could give you my story, but if you’re anything like me, you would read it, and say to yourself, “yes, but that’s not MY life”.
I hope you will find the wisdom written here, and the love, caring, and support all have offered. I hope you will find the right path for you. I don’t believe it’s staying in your current situation, but only you can make that decision. I hope you will see that you are worth so much more than your Partner is offering. I am glad Partner was there for you and was supportive while you healed (are healing?) from sexual abuse. However, I feel constrained to put out that Partner is abusing you, just in a different way. You are still enduring abuse – from Partner, from his family.
LW – I must repeat – you are worth so much more than the morsels you are offered. You deserve an equal relationship with someone who respects ALL of you, and is on Team You. Someone who has your back without question.
I wish you all the best – I hope this isn’t too over the top. It’s my first time posting, and I hope I haven’t broken any rules.
This is the long answer, so skip to the end if you want the short version.
I grew up the scapegoat in my family. I’ve seen people talk about parents saying how “lucky [Child] is that [Guardian] took them in and fed and clothed them”. Yeah, that was me. My mom died of cancer when I was 9. Before that she was too proud to ask for help so I took care of her and my younger siblings until her family ambushed her and discovered the situation. After that my dad’s family cut my mom’s family out of our life (not that they tried terribly hard), I spent the 4 months after my mom’s death separated from my family in the care of cousins because my dad couldn’t be bothered to come get us. My family bore into me that I was lucky he was taking us in at all and that I was the woman of the family now and it was my job to take care of everyone.
Did I mention my psychologist says my father is a pedophile? Yeah, so enter a ten years of emotional and sexual abuse that was completely my fault/in my own head/my role as the oldest female in the family depending on the conversation. These people all knew my father was an alcoholic, had an inappropriate history with women, especially teenage ones. But it was my job to keep the family looking respectable and when I couldn’t do that, when I broke, I was shamed for lying about my dad. One of my relatives commented on a blog post I made about my recovery process that I wouldn’t know what really happened (I was talking about the actual memories I had) and I needed to “ask someone who was actually there.” That’s the perfect frame for my childhood.
Fast forward to early adulthood and I somehow land a partner who is not perfect, but loyal, makes me feel great about myself, defends me even from my self-shaming and supports me even when he doesn’t agree with me. I try to do the right thing and maintain a relationship with my family. I take him up for a wedding to introduce him. My family REFUSED to acknowledged his presence. They will not talk to him. They glare at him, cut him out of the conversation, pretend he’s not there. I’m absolutely heartbroken because I know this guy is good. I know he makes me feel wonderful and stands up for me…and I realize they’re why he has to stand up for me. Well, I already knew it, but that let me start on the path to recovery, the first step of which is admitting that something is wrong.
Eight months later my brother takes his girlfriend of the month (that’s mean to him, not her. I’m actually still friends with her.) to visit and they ADORE her. All sweet talk, and niceness and she gets to stay in the house with him. They have sex on the dining room table before the big family Christmas. I’m furious because Great guy and I were respectful and polite and got treated very badly and brother is treated great, but is terribly disrespectful and they adore him. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with me that I can’t do anything at all to make them happy?
In the end I couldn’t take it. I was tired of them treating me that way, but it was a lot easier to stand up for my Great Guy (and eventually our kids) than it was for myself. I have dipped my toes back into the family contact waters, only to hear how he must be brainwashing me and abusing me. So now I’m estranged from my blood family–and I’ve never been happier.
The truth is LW (and boyfriend) that most people cannot begin to face up to the full extent of abuse until they are OUT of it. They cannot admit things are as bad as they are, especially if there are good memories too. Especially if you remember holidays where the whole family gathered and played games and opened presents and ate and joked until it was dark and you could barely keep your eyes open. Especially if your family introduced you to some wonderful books. Especially when you remember that there were once “I love you”s and “Good job”s and other such things.
It takes a long damn time to go from crying your eyes out, wondering what you did wrong, and knowing that you (or your partner) HAD to do something because people don’t just act that way for no reason to understanding that IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH YOU. Sometimes (even 13 years later, still with Great Guy at your side) you still think about something that happened (or find a picture) and start tearing up because it’s just not fair. Your list of successes and accomplishments should have proven that you are a worthy person. Why can’t they see it?
It is so, so much harder to start recovery when you’re still in the situation. And that’s what your partner needs. HE needs to wean himself out of the family, immerse himself in good friends, a supportive partner, working for the life he wants to build. He needs to see how supportive loving people actually treat each other so he can start to see the extent of the problem.
But can he do that? You should for sure. You don’t have to go to family events. You don’t have to put yourself in that situation (really, you’re a new target to them. And the more you resist the more they will try to break you. That is what they are doing. Trying to break you so they can “prove” they’re better than you, in their own heads, and so they can deal with you in the way which they are familiar dealing with people–which is not by people standing up to them or telling them no.)
What you need to decide is can you live with it if he still does? If he doesn’t extract himself, start his own recovery, can you live with that? In all likelihood things will get better if you back out (abusers rarely chase people like you when they have others more than willing to come back), but you will still have to deal with those family invasion moments like in that apartment. Can he accept limits that include “No home invasions”, “No taking advantage of me”, “No tolerance of thievery (I suspect that has already happened to you though)” and “No lending them money”? If he cannot then your fiscal, emotional and even physical well being will always be threatened and you need to decide now if you can live with that or not.
TL;DR version: Nothing will change until HE extracts from the abusive situation. Can you live with that? Can he respect limits meant to protect your fiscal, emotional and physical well being (absolutely no more “house parties”!)? If not you need to decide if the risk is acceptable for the reward, or take your chances elsewhere.
My god, the things people do to members of their own families… so glad you’ve left them behind! I understand that lingering hunger for approval but yeesh, it is so not worth the price. Let’s hear it for the Great Guys and Wonderful Women!
I’m going to be frank here: your partner knows that they are abusive. He is going through therapy. He realizes that they are horrible people. And yet for some reason, he is putting all the blame on you.
Honestly, I’m wondering why he only recognizes abuse when it’s directed at HIM and makes HIM feel bad. I’m wondering why he is prioritizing people he knows are horrible over his fiance, who has weathered all this wonderfully. I’m wondering why someone who is supposedly “fiercely loyal” is not being loyal to YOU.
When you’re in a relationship, the hierarchy of needs should look like this: Yourself > Your Partner > Everyone Else. Marriage is a declaration of “this is the person I am choosing to value over all other humans except myself.”
Your partner is not doing this. Your partner values the people who withheld money from him over the person who is helping him through abuse. Your partner values the people who blame him for being jobless over the person who stuck with him through being threatened with eviction. Your partner’s first loyalty is not to you, Ridiculously Awesome Person, but to abusive assholes. That says worlds about what he values.
And honestly, I’m looking at your letter and thinking how fucking obvious it is that he’s just repeating their values.
“When told that their son was on the brink of being a homeless person, his parents suggested that he seek therapy for his inability to accept blame for his own mistakes.”
“However, every conversation I have with him about this always turns back to what a bitch I am, and how hard I make it for them to be nice to me.”
“He’s blamed me for “driving away” the friends who broke into our home and partied in it without asking, when they’re the ones who chose to uninvite me from all their events. ”
“He’s blamed me for provoking his father into screaming at me (apparently, by having a private conversation with a different person in a different room which he then inserted himself into).”
Look at what he is doing. He is doing exactly the same thing his parents are doing. EXACTLY THE SAME THING. He is making your problems your fault and making it seem like your problems are a personal failure on your part, rather than things beyond your control. He is repeating their cycle of abuse TO THE LETTER, and he shows zero signs of stopping, because to him, the abuse is normal and you are the one who is weird.
And I’m going to say this straight out: even if your fiance goes through shit-tons of therapy and realizes what a horrible situation he’s in (which he already does, so what does that say?), not only will he keep treating the abuse as normal (because what you grew up seeing as normal IS your normal), but it’s not your job to train him out of it. It’s not your job to put up with abuse with the hope that maybe, someday, he’ll get better. Him not being an asshole is not your reward for putting up with abuse. It should be fucking standard.
I was once in a situation with my exboyfriend where I deeply loved him, he was my best friend, but where I ultimately just had to leave because it just was no longer working. My ex had a long history of being an underachiever, getting into petty trouble, and having friends who had even greater issues. When I met him, he was getting his life slowly on track, however none of this was recognized by his parents.
When I first met his parents, it was a case of “brilliant – they really like me!” – but over time it became clear that they basically saw me as ‘the cleaner’. I would go in there, fix their son, and then leave . They would say things around us that explicitly presented this opinion (i.e. “good thing she’s stuck around long enough for you to graduate – try to keep her until you can get a job”). He would just take it in quietly, never addressing his family – and as it wasn’t my family I never said anything.
That attitude ultimately creeped over into a lot of elements of our relationship, and I became what his family projected onto me. I was ‘the fixer’, ‘the new mommy’, and having that attitude ultimately just crippled the relationship and I knew I had to leave because we had stopped being partners.
It’s a relationship I greatly value, but the fact that he could never address the faults in his family and acknowledge how they appeared in other areas of his life meant they just repeated. When I dumped him, he was really desperate for me to stay – and at one point I asked him how he could continue enjoying being with me. I had become this mean nagging angry domineering shouting mess in his life – and even though I recognized it, he said that it was just fine and he could get used to it. That was the point that I knew I was making the right choice. When someone is crying in front of you about how they’re cool with the worst side of your behavior continuing – at that point I knew I just had to go.
This is hard for me to write but I hope it helps. My partner and I have been together for 18 years. His family has hated me from day one. They have SO much in common with the family LW describes – the abuse the manipulation – all of it. For the first decade (yep ten years of eating shit almost daily) I took the blame for all that was wrong between all of them. My partner was wonderfulness (I thought) and therefore worth the pain. After our last child was born premature our finances were wiped out. We were fully under their control as our only resources were our portion of a family trust. The stress skyrocketed. My partner was under the screws and was being told consistently that if only I weren’t such a problem (I am not a member of their church and this was the excuse for loads of abuse) his life and our kids lives would be great. Our marriage was hanging by threads. I started hearing their words come out of his mouth. Between post pardum and that I got very close to suicide. He came home early. Do you see what I mean? We began serious serious therapy. He and I each did individual therapy too. We cut off his entire family from access to ours. We got a lawyer to act as an agent on the trust – eight years later and we are actually happy healthy people. BUT it is still work. There are still dramatic family interactions. There is still the occasional time we have to change the phone numbers. We had to re-learn almost every way we communicated. I won’t pretend to know the full depth of what you are going through, just as there are millions of things I’m not sharing, I just want to ask you a few questions and hope that you have the courage to answer them honestly.
1. Do you want to ever be in the situation where the difference between alive and dead is dumb luck?
2. Do you want to be dealing with his family the rest of your life (waiting for them to die is a fantasy – this is muligenerational LW)?
3. Do you *and* BF have the stamina to do the therapy for as long as it takes, get as deep as it takes, and do it as a team?
Your answers will tell you what you need to do. You deserve happy AND healthy. And I don’t want you to think my outcome is typical because I’m acutely aware it isn’t. I don’t advocate staying and at my most honest, if it were my daughter I would have done everything short of kidnapping to get her out of the situation I was in. Luck and therapy was on our side. I wish you the best. You deserve to love yourself and receive it from others. Jedi hugs.
OK, LW, I am in a relatively similar situation to you (although OH MY GOD, not as bad, what is even GOING ON with these people!) So, this is me and what I’ve done about it:
My husband is wonderful and I love the hell out of him but he has not always been fantastic about setting boundaries with his mother, who has been pretty damn nasty to me in the past. She has never been an enormous fan of our relationship and there has been plenty of general nastiness and several incidents of special nastiness and it generally hasn’t been fun. And my husband would literally go along with making plans for me about strategies and boundaries and techniques to deal with it and then… just. not. do. it. when the time came.
What I did, and what I advise you do is change the outcome you want. Stop aiming for “getting on better with in-laws” or even “set better boundaries with in-laws” or even “communicate with husband better about in-laws”. Make your new goal “not get feelings hurt by in-laws”. Because that one, that one is doable, and the way you do it is you *stay the hell away from the pack of unspeakable gits*. In my view the Captain’s suggested break time is WAY too low. I would say six months absolute minimum and in my view it should be indefinite. Seeing them every three months should be the goal for when you’re all getting along great. I’m absolutely serious about this. And if he asks when you’ll see them again, well the answer is obvious: when I feel like I can trust them to treat me well and trust you to protect me properly.
This is what I did, and even though my boo had been suggesting I just not come to family things as a solution (which I had found really hurtful, like, OK you’re just giving up on me ever having an OK relationship with your family?) he actually was not too happy about it. Especially as, surprise surprise, she was quite often pretty nasty to him too (it sounds like this is likely in your case too). But you know what? I can’t protect him from his own mother, especially if he’s not going to help me, and neither can you protect your guy. So. Let him go off to his family things. Don’t begrudge him going, and don’t feel like you are being left out or that your dream of one day getting one with your in-laws is being smashed (as someone said above, they are probably never going to accept you into their bosom as their new favourite daughter and HOO BOY THANK THE LORD). Just be glad that you are avoiding another serve of Unpleasantness Pie. Rent your favourite movie. Have a dinner/lunch date with a friend (if it’s a friend he’d like to see too, too bad. It’s his choice to go off and get Darthed). Have a hot bath. Enjoy yourself and your time away from them being horrible to you. When he comes home, if he’s had a rough time (quite likely, unfortunately) comfort him and give him a cuddle but don’t make it your problem. Don’t suggest solutions/strategies/comebacks/coping mechanisms. Cuddles, reassurance and sympathy. That’s it.
This is literally the end of the grand plan. Congratulations, you are no longer being Darthed all over! In my case, this led fairly quickly to my boy setting some serious boundaries and sticking too them (I think possibly I was absorbing a fair bit of the unpleasantness and once he was getting it full force he decided to level up a bit. God, this makes him sound awful! – and he absolutely isn’t but, you know, we are often really not our best around our families). Which led in turn to both of us scarcely seeing MIL for almost 2.5 years. During this time I remember my husband saying to me – “I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to get on with her, we are at best only ever going to be between fights.” And I have to say I was sure he was right (obviously very painful for him).
BUT, and this is the amazing bit, we are now getting along really well with MIL! Crazy I know, and of course things are still a little cautious and awkward but we have caught up with her several times in the last months and every time has been lovely. So. I really don’t tell you that story to encourage you to have that as your goal – your goal is only to Avoid the Awful. But I thought it’s a nice reminder that you really never can tell. And sometimes the never-can-tell turns out for the best 🙂
All the very best to you. Maybe check in with us? Hugs!
Thanks for this comment!
LW, and New Nickname,
The reason I said “3 months” is that it sounds like a reasonable timeframe to the husband.
What you’re aiming for is “A year” or “Never again” but starting with a reasonable-sounding increment and “reevaluate/seeing how it goes” is more likely to get him on board than “I never want to see those fuckers again.” What you’re probably going to find out is that it will go great for you but horrible for him (“Where’s your bitch girlfriend?”), so it’s really a test – can he back you up on this one simple thing? Can he not pass on their blame and judgment to you?
Yes absolutely, I wanted to add yesterday but had to wait to get fished out of the filter (thanks Cap!) that if he makes trouble for you about this, or pressures you to go to things and won’t take no for an answer, then you really have a problem.
I *really* hope that things go well for you LW.
[And thanks Cap! It’s rare that I don’t just nod my head repetitively but you are always so cool about a respectful disagreement that it makes me :-)]
As soon as I stopped showing up or engaging, the negative stuff landed on boyfriend. That made him much more likely to notice it and think about maybe working to stop it someday.
In the spirit of “this is what a workable solution could look like”, I thought I’d add my story.
Background: This isn’t really a story like LW’s. It’s about my bf/fiance/husband. We live a couple miles from his family.
1. His family gossip endlessly about each other and everyone they know. Share anything and they’ll tell anyone.
2. The think they should have a say in every decision anyone makes.
3. They try to guilt trip him into doing what they want “Your father thinks you don’t love him” “You’ve changed since you met Sheep, you used to be such a nice boy”(bearing in mind he’s in his 30’s) “Your sister needs you, her life isn’t X like it used to be”
4. They treat him like he’s 15 and living with them (he hasn’t since his early 20’s)
5. They expect me to fall into their weird ideas of “You should do this for us at great inconvenience to yourself simply because we’ve asked and it’s just POLITE, you know”.
6. I am blunt, keep my private business to myself, hate gossip, have no problem with standing up for myself and no plans to be anyone’s doormat.
The only way our relationship worked was through me explaining for the first 2 years, that his family was trying to emotionally blackmail him (and me – ha! Good luck!) and that he was a grown man capapble of making his own desicions and that they should respect him as such.
The situation was uncomfortable at best, involved many fights between me and him, and him and his family. They would never fight with me directly, just give him shit about me when I wasn’t there.
The way I dealt with it was (because his was also due to a lack of confidence based on how they treated him), was to give him a script of what to say to them in my absence.
Step 1: Distance (for me) “Sheep is not coming”
“Sheep is busy working” “Sheep has lacrosse practice” “Sheep is sick” and I would be happily reading, taking a bath, watching tv, whatever I liked while he was gone.
Step 2: Distance (for him) “bf is not coming”
“We are busy doing this time-based activity that cannot be put off” “We are visiting someone” “We have an appointment”
Step 3: Time restrictions “we can come for a short time”
“We need to go to the store before it closes” “We have to start dinner”
Step 4: Reinforce boundaries “they can’t treat you like that”
“We had plans to do X today, we’re not available” “they shouldn’t say things like that to you – you can do exactly whatever the fuck you like and it’s none of their business” “Next time they start talking shit about me, tell them they should take it up with me instead” “they’re not showing you respect when they say that”
Step 5: (this one’s really important) “let them know we’re both making the decisions”
“Don’t say “let me ask Sheep if we can do X” “Tell them you’ll call them back after we’ve discussed it” “you’re allowed to say ‘I’ll get back to you’ when they ask you something”
During this time, I kept explaining that we are our own family and that he has to put his needs (and mine) first. Our relationship won’t work otherwise. His family are coming to realise that we won’t just go over there with no notice, we won’t just do what they want at the drop of a hat.
We’ve been married a few years now and although he still has trouble remembering that he doesn’t have to just do what they say any more, he’s come a long way. His family have backed way the hell off and are actually approaching “Normality”
Thank you for this comment and the tangible steps you took to resolve the conflict with your possibly well-meaning but much-too-invasive family. You essentially answered a letter I was in the process of revising.
I’m actually thrilled that my story could help someone.
One thing – just don’t confuse “possibly well-meaning (towards you)” with “deludes themselves into thinking it’s for your own good”. Boundaries are important for everyone.
I hope it all works out well for you.
I want to second this comment. I have an extremely difficult family, and the only saving grace is that neither the explosive parent nor the passive-aggressive parent target anyone except their own kids. Ultimately it means it’s us kids that have to make the call, but I witness my brothers-in-law navigate this mess for 15+ years, and these are some additional suggestions.
a) You don’t have to attend every event.
a1) Make other plans sometimes. You can also invite your SO to come with you. If he wants to attend his family event, that’s fine, but at least you aren’t sitting at home wondering what brand of toxic smoke Evil Dad is blowing.
b) Attend sometimes. Get well-acquainted with magazines and newspaper. Read pleasantly, and master the art of “Oh?” and “Mm-hm?” when someone is saying something you loathe.
c) I know this isn’t out of town, and this would be way better if it was, but you might try to casually leave for a few minutes and run an errand. This could be, “Gotta get the dry-cleaning!” or “I passed a shaved ice place on the way here and I MUST go get some!” I have personally used these, and I haven’t had a garment that needed dry-cleaning in a decade. Alternately, you could pick up chain-smoking under stress and go outside whenever you’re tempted to throw blows. I kid, but this is also in my coping arsenal.
Ultimately, you’re a grown up and you don’t have to apologize for existing. You’re trying to stand your ground without your boyfriend’s support even though his support is non-negotiable. These are survival skills that might help in the moment, but the bigger question about the health of the relationship is still there.
As a kid that was raised in an emotionally abusive household like this, your boyfriend is probably terrified to question the status quo, which is why you won’t/don’t have his support. Kids who are raised in explosive homes learn that stepping on eggshells is better than stepping out of line, and unfortunately this doesn’t disappear when you move out of the house. I’m still working on it, and sometimes my successes are tempered by slides back into old habits of despair and self-blame.
For me, the answer is changing my expectations. I truly can’t change any of the familial dynamics, most of which were there long before I was born (including money manipulations, explosions about politics and religion, badmouthing the scapegoat, among 100 other gross things). I don’t lean on my parents for money anymore. I don’t tell them about my personal problems anymore. I don’t gossip with my mom anymore. Anything that can be refashioned into ammo to hurt me with later, I try not to give them. But really, these are his problems, problems about setting, maintaining, and feeling confident in boundaries that he sets with his family, so that you and he have a good place in which to have a relationship (one without illicit parties), and so he doesn’t have to cut them out altogether. But it sounds like he’s so averse to taking their heat, it may be out of the question. That’s for his therapist to tease out. The job for your therapist is to help you figure out whether this is a worthwhile battle.
I know what you mean – personally I’m not an “eggshells” kind of person and it saddens me to see it in others. You sound like you’ve taken positive steps though.
My father’s family behaves in a very similar way towards my mother, and I have to say, LW, if you have no commitment from your fiancee on the setting of boundaries it’s probably better for you to end the relationship. My parents have been married for 30 years and my father still refuses to acknowledge that she even has legitimate grievances. My mother is constantly treated as the bitch who spoils everyone’s fun by attempting to set boundaries, and is on the receiving end of a ton of passive-aggressive behavior. In short, unless he strives towards change there are no guarantees. This stuff can go on forever unless he’s willing to listen. You deserve a partner who respects your boundaries and doesn’t blame you for the behavior of his family.
LW, you need to separate yourself from your partner’s family. Then you and he have to look at his role and function in this separated family structure.
Will he be a filter keeping muck and nastiness away from you?
Or will he be a funnel – focusing the force of their vileness directly towards you?
Wow, so many awkward partner’s family stories – and so many great solutions.
My story which is very mild compared to the LW and many of those above is that my bf is very protective about his family and even when his family members do things that hurt him or me he will defend them.
I mostly get on OK with most of his family, however I just do not get on with his younger sister, who is extremely aggressive and socially awkward and who likes to take over every family meeting to talk LOUDLY about herself and make racist and homophobic comments.Anyway, my issue with her is more that she has said very hurtful and insulting comments to me, including that I am only with my bf for his money, comments about my weight, policing what I eat in family dinners, at one stage she even made nasty jokes about my sex life with my bf (yes she talks about her brother’s sex life and yes that is FUCKING CREEPY) etc. She laughs these comments off as “I was just joking!”.
To deal with this, because I found it hurtful and because try as I might I Just.Do.Not.Like.Her, I told my bf that I would not attend every family meeting (they want us to come every single week, which is too much for me because of Obnoxious Sister). At first bf was very upset about this, I think because he just cannot cope with criticism of his family and he still thinks I am over-reacting about Obnoxious Sister, but he did listen while I explained why her comments upset me and why I don’t think “I was just joking” is an excuse. So now I just don’t attend every week to give myself space.
I guess what I am trying to say is that it is hard for some people to accept that their families can be obnoxious sometimes. But they should accept that their partners might not see their families in the same way they do or want to hang out with them to the same degree that they do.
If your Partner also believes that there is 100 percent no chance that you would leave *under any circumstances*, then there is no incentive to change. You just said you would stay, so asking him to help make your life more livable in your own house is framed as an optional. Start there, perhaps. “I know I’ve said I’d never leave you, but I’m getting to a place where my daily life hurts too much for us to continue in this way. So that leaves continue in a different way, or not continuing. I’d like to make time for us to talk about it, maybe after you’ve discussed the idea with your therapist.” Ask him what he sees as reasonable boundaries for you to have with people who hurt you. Figure out your requirements and see if he’s open to them. If he’s not, then *he* just left *you*, and you can mourn the loss of the relationship you hoped you were having, and move on.
LW, I don’t know what — or if anything — will cause your boyfriend to stop blaming you for this issue, or what — if anything — will make it tolerable to have his family in your life. Other commenters have offered some coping strategies and scripts for discussing the problem, and I hope some are helpful to you.
The thing that struck me most about your letter was how much this relationship felt inescapable. As the letter progressed the things you were describing kept getting worse and worse, but way back at the beginning you’d already started with the premise that leaving was not an option. I think that you need to change that mindset. Not because you should decide to leave your partner right now (or ever), but because it is impossible to have a safe relationship with healthy boundaries if your starting premise is that not being with this person is not an option. There are things he could do that SHOULD cause you to leave. There are behaviors and attitudes and relationship dynamics that WOULD be bad enough to outweigh all of his good qualities. And the thing about being in a relationship with problems but that you nonetheless are committed to is that it can be really, really tough to notice when “this thing is not good but I am willing to deal with it” slowly creeps its way into “this thing that I would not be willing to put up with in a relationship, except without even noticing it I somehow ended up putting up with it because it started out not-so-bad and gradually got worse over time.”
I’d like to suggest that you try sitting down alone somewhere private where you feel safe, preferrably outside of your home (a public park? a library? that quiet coffee shop with comfy armchairs?). Don’t just look for a place where you physically feel safe, but also one that makes you feel warm and fuzzy and relaxed. Spend some time thinking about the interactions with your partner or his family that have upset you or frightened you or made you angry. Make a list of what things your partner or his family did that caused those reactions. Make it specific and detailed and as long as necessary. Instead of listing things like “cares more about his family than me” try to make it about actions: “refuses to listen when I am upset about something his family did,” “tells me that any conflict with his family is my fault,” etc. Instead of “treats me like dirt” list out all of the specific ways that manifests: “refuses to acknowledge me when I speak to her,” “tells Boyfriend that I am the cause of all of his problems,” etc.
When you’ve finished the list, go back through it and decide which of those things you would be willing to accept as the price of admission to this relationship. The answer should not be “all of them.” Your unacceptable list should include things you will not be willing to deal with from your partner and things you would not be willing to deal with from his family; the latter set implicitly means that you are not willing to deal with your partner not having your back on those issues. I can’t tell you which things you personally should or should not be willing to accept, but I can say that on my list “calls me a bitch and doesn’t sincerely apologize later” would be a price of admission I was not willing to pay for any relationship. So would “[anyone] screaming at me and forbidding me from speaking in his home” and “[my partner] not telling his father that screaming at me and forbidding me from speaking in his home was unacceptable, regardless of what the father was upset about.” Be realistic and kind to yourself when deciding what you would be willing to accept as the price of admission, and assume that every problem action you’ve listed is not going to get better over time: if you’re not willing to accept dealing with a thing for the next 40 years, then don’t put it in the bucket of things you’re willing to deal with. If you’re not willing to deal with a thing once kids are in the picture, don’t put it in the bucket of things you’re willing to deal with.
When you’re done with that list, the decision of what to do with it is yours. You could write a letter or email to your partner (I agree with the commenters who suggested that might be better than a face-to-face talk, given past interactions regarding his family) in which you tell him that you need him to do/not do the following things (agree to leave his parents’ house if they scream at you, don’t place blame on you for problems with his family, etc.). You could keep the list to yourself and use it as a guideline of which battles you want to fight (“I hate that his mother gave me the silent treatment all day, but I’m going to let that go. I don’t want to fight with Partner about his family, but when we got home he told me I’d been a bitch to them all day, and that’s something I need to tell him is not acceptable.”). You could use the list as a periodic check on whether this is a relationship that, no matter how much you want to be in it, has too high a price of admission (“I can’t imagine ever leaving Partner and I love him more than anyone, but in the past two months he has done 6 things that I said were dealbreakers for me. However much I think I should stay right now, it is time to go.”). The point of the list is just to change your internal narrative from “no matter what, I am not leaving him” to “there are some things that are unacceptable and that I will not allow anyone to do to me, regardless of how much I love that person.”
Finally, one last suggestion: start therapy yourself. And not because you’re hoping to eventually get your boyfriend there. Though I agree that couples therapy sounds like a good idea, I think that individual therapy for you is also important. You need to build the best Team You that you can, and I think that a part of that should be finding a trained professional who can be an objective support system. I know you said money was tight, in which case you might want to look into programs aimed at sexual assault survivors or women experiencing domestic abuse. You don’t need to decide that the second label applies to your situation now or at any time, but I think those are the places you’re mostly likely to find free or very low-cost assistance geared towards healing from your past and constructing healthy boundaries in current and future relationships.
LW, I truly think that your issue is not with your SOs abusive family, it’s your relationship with your SO you need to look at. The blaming you for others behavior is a big red flag to me. I was in a relationship like that for 17 years but I’m afraid I do not have any good coping solutions.
My mom is a person who behaves histrionically and narcissistically. I have found that there are two ways to deal with her bad behavior.
1) blankly look at her until she finishes and repeat whatever ridiculous or hurtful thing she just said. As a question. Like “so you really think (insert what she said here)?”. Preferably with an audience so she knows that everyone else just heard her too.
2) “I will remove myself from this place if you continue to behave this way.”
This can mean taking a short walk or cutting my visit short. I give her the choice: shall I leave or will you behave civilly and I will stay?
Being clear and doing what I say I will do has greatly improved her behavior.
My husbands father is a verbally abusive alcoholic and narcissist. We generally have cut him out of our lives for various reasons, but one thing that we do when talking about him to help my husband avoid the”you are attacking my family” defensive response is discuss the behaviors separate from the person. Even an abusive person is rarely 100% evil which is where a lot of cognitive disconnect comes from.
Separating the abusive behavior is helpful because it frames the abuse as a choice instead of “just how Family Member is.”.
We talk about the good and happy memories he has of his father and then contrast those with the bad. We talk about it in terms of processing how the bad behavior affected us individually and stay away from trying to imagine his reasons for the behavior because honestly, it does not matter.
Abusive behavior is unacceptable. No matter who is engaging in it. Setting clear boundaries, being direct with words and actions, following through with your stated boundaries and framing the abusive behavior as a choice and not “just how they are” have kept my husband and I united and supportive of one another, even if we do have to be around abusive and complicated family members.
That’s a great point–take the Jay Smooth approach (call out the unacceptable behavior, rather than framing judgments about the people who performed the behavior). I think here there is a genera consensus that the LW’s bf’s horrible family is, well, horrible. But since there is conflict between the LW and her significant other about what he perceives as her unfair judgment of the family, and he derails by flinging name-calling back at her, she could probably also gain some traction by focusing on the behavior, not the people. What actions are acceptable? What actions are unacceptable?
I honestly think that most people don’t want to be EVIL or BAD. But many people have severe issues that they either cope badly with or don’t want to deal with or have developed very horrible mannerisms of behaving towards others. It doesn’t matter WHY they act the way they do- simply the fact that they ACT like that means that you have to first admit the behavior is WRONG, and then go from there (how to mitigate it, etc).
It is very easy to say “oh, just cut X person out of your life” but it is rarely that easy in reality. Many of us have situations where we’d be unable to see other beloved and non-abusive family members (siblings, grandparents, etc) or people who are complacent because they don’t know what to do about it and try to either smooth it over. It was easier for me to say “just screw ’em” when my grandma was still alive and I could escape to her house. It was also easier when I was in college and I had a bunch of friends that I could have as a “second family.” But now that most of them have moved back to their respective hometowns and I have a family of my own, I realize how alone I am. Being a parent especially is quite isolating, and blood relations are often the only people you’ve got left. I know that it would be nice and idealistic to live in a world where everyone lives in a magic happy village, but that’s not usually the case, and as much as I’d love to be totally independent and never need help for anything and be moneybags rich so I could pay out of pocket for every conceivable expense, sometimes it really does help for family to be there for things like babysitting. The biggest thing is if the family is only underhandedly poisonous (as in, most of the bullshit they put you through is gaslighting/manipulation/undermining your self-confidence bullshit), it may be harmful, but it’s even more harmful to be one unexpected bill from homelessness (as many people are in this horrible economy) and have no fall-back family who will help you because you burned the bridge. The more bridges you burn, especially in my case- where the abusive person is not “severely abusive” (ie: no sexual abuse, no extreme physical abuse, etc), sometimes you have to balance out your ideals with your realities.
This is *NOT* saying that one should endure or accept abusive behavior, and for many people, it is possible to find a non-abusive “second family” that is not blood related. However, it does also mean that it’s very complicated to tell others what they should and should not do in their own personal situation, because we all have different sets of circumstances that we must choose from as far as what is non-negotiable or acceptable.
So, in short- sometimes developing competence in developing boundaries and “training” people to treat you well (as I tell my mom when she begins to behave poorly- “you can choose to treat me civilly, or I can choose to remove myself from your presence”). She has a choice. I do too. So rather than demand anything of her, I give her a decision to make. Her behavior is unacceptable to me, and I know that she is capable of acting civilly. Therefore, she knows that I will either leave if she would like to continue behaving unpleasantly so as not to have to experience the unpleasantness, or she can CHOOSE to behave better in my presence and I will stick around and we can have a good conversation or enjoy the Friday night movie or whatever. It is her choice- but it is also my choice. And the fact that she knows this has given her a future expectation of what I will do if she behaves the same poor way. It has helped her understand how I wish to be treated, while also helping her understand that I’m not FORCING her to behave like that- it’s just my condition for being around her.
If isolation as a parent makes you feel you have no choice but to rely on toxic family, here’s a suggestion: set up/join a babysitting coop. It’s basically a way to barter childcare hours for childcare hours. Anyone in the coop can ask anyone else in the coop for babysitting services. The person asked can say no for any reason (inconvenience, incompatible standards of behavior…). But if they do sit, the babysitter gets credit for so many hours, while the person whose kid(s) needed watching gets a debit (there’s one recordkeeper; people call/e-mail/text their hours to the record keeper).
Because no one is going to turn their kids over to strangers, there are regular meetings — our group alternated one month that would be a business-type meeting, the next would be a social event like a potluck *with kids and both parents (if there were 2)* so everyone could get to know one another (and their kids) and observe one another’s parenting styles. Perhaps at the group’s start-up you’d want it every 2 weeks instead of a month so you’d get to know one another well enough to feel comfortable faster. Parents usually fall into swapping regularly with one or two other families they feel comfortable with and whose kids are compatible ages/temperments with theirs.
It’s a great, cheap way to a) have no-cost babysitting, b) make friends with other parents who have similar parenting philosophies, and c) more generally expand your support structure. Some of the people I met that way became lifelong friends. I would consider some of them my family-of-choice… which would be especially valuable, I should think, if your family-by-blood is toxic. Define your own family! (Make your own magic happy village!)
The group was a godsend when my daughter was really sick (as in pediatric intensive care sick) when she was 3. When our pediatrician said “get thee to [the big hospital an hour away]” I dropped my 1-year old son with someone from the coop, who he knew and loved by then so I had *no* worries he would be traumatized by the experience, and the rest of the coop wound up being a casserole brigade for 2 weeks so we never had to think about what’s for dinner… we’d come home from the hospital and eat whatever someone had stuck in our fridge.
I imagine you could form your group by putting up notices at the library, local playgroups, and/or your pediatrician’s office.
That would be nice, but we don’t particularly live in a “child friendly” area. Most of the other parents either fall into the very poor, uneducated non-English speaking populations or the really rich, upper middle class SAHMs who have nannies and mansions and stuff. There’s a lot of hippy-dippy outspoken Vegan/vegetarian/cloth diapering moms who don’t particularly respect or care much for moms who make other choices (there’s a lot of mommy war bullshit on the email list I have for the local moms here in the town where I live). And most of the mom events in our city are either “you have to pay to be part of the community center which is in this far away area you will have to drive to and all the classes are during the day when you work” or they’re free playdates scheduled in the middle of the day on the week days, which is when I work (8-5).
We’ll be starting a co-op preschool in the fall, and I’m hoping that we can find some more support group type people from that experience, but I’m still not 100% sure what to expect.
I try to be optimistic, but making friends with parents for having children in common often feels like making friends with other brunettes just because we happen to share the same shade of hair.
It doesn’t help that the town I live in is mostly considered a “college town” and my husband and I really didn’t notice it until we decided to have kids of our own- it’s very isolating.
I know it won’t be like this forever, but I also know that if I move back to my hometown eventually, I’ll have some friends from school nearby and I won’t have to start from scratch in meeting people I actually know I get along with. As for family, I still love my father quite a lot, and I would never get to see him if I cut my mom out of my life. I need to have a firm and clear way of dealing with her, but she’s mellowed out a bit since I started using these tactics on her.
I guess if you have little use for “poor, uneducated, non-English speaking populations” “rich, upper middle class Stay at Home Moms,” “hippy-dippy outspoken Vegan/vegetarian/cloth diapering moms,” (or, apparently, professors and their families), and that’s how you see everyone around you, and if the fact that you and another human being both have kids around the same age provides no more common ground for you than hair color would, it *would* be hard to get to know new people and expand your circle of friends. Good luck with that anyway.
To be honest, while I can commiserate about parenting stuff with other parents pretty easily, that’s pretty much the only thing I connect with most other parents on. I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t believe in going on the latest fad diet, I don’t have the money to go on expensive vacations, I’m not bilingual, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who try and hit me over the head with the “vegan schpiel”. I’m also really uninterested in political stuff and current events. I can get along with them on a superficial level, but close friends or like family? Not really. I guess I’m just a terrible adult in general. I get along better with people’s kids than with the parents most of the time, because at least the kids have imaginations and stuff. And that way, I’m not constantly interrupted in conversing by my “kid radar” making sure she’s ok because I’m the one running around with her playing dinosaur tag or whatever.
Giving birth didn’t make me any more “best friends” with random people than choosing similar clothing or having similarly styled hair. There are some things to talk to, but there must be other things in place before I can truly feel connected with another human being in a very close, trusted friend sort of way.
I replayed your words in the hope you might see how dismissive you were being, and that your community actually has a pretty broad spectrum of people. You seem to be clumping people together into falsely homogeneous groups in your mind, then dismissing them wholesale as folks you couldn’t possibly have anything in common with… and you might want to think about why.
I’m confident there are lots and lots of folks in you town’s immigrant and/or minority community/ties who are neither ignorant nor unable to converse comfortably (and interestingly!) in English; that many if not most of the middle to upper class moms work outside the home, too, and that those who don’t don’t all have nannies (and those who do aren’t all supercilious bitches); that of those who present as “hippies” in your mind, it is actually a minority who are aggressively judgmental about food and diapering choices. And of course there’s that whole other sector you didn’t mention: college towns tend to have a solid core of educated, intellectual people and good arts and culture scenes.
Perhaps it’s a forced bonding technique that toxic mom of yours used, to “other” people and encourage you to assume you can’t relate to them or enjoy their company if they aren’t just like your family? As in, *exactly* like your family… to the point of *being* your family? (Best stick tight to this family no matter how unpleasant we are because this group is unworthy in this way, that group is unworthy in that way, and so on..)? ‘Cause otherwise I have a hard time imagining who “your people” are that you can’t find anyone who meets your friend-specs in what actually sounds like a fairly diverse community.
Getting to know other parents isn’t about “You have a three year old son! I have a three year old son! We are now besties!” It’s just like when you go to a film, or a lecture, or concert or coffeehouse or book group or whatever your thing is… Both having kids gives you common ground to stand on and something to chat about as you explore whether you are simpatico in other ways. Of course it’s superficial at first… you don’t acquire shared history and trust instantly. You get that by finding the folks that seem generally like-minded, then having more conversations, and suggesting you get together sometime outside playgroup, and while the kids play and the moms/dads watch, you talk… (though yeah — you will be interrupted — but that’s about having kids, not something wrong with the people you’re hanging with). The good thing about the parenting context is that other people are generally open to meeting other parents, finding fellow-travelers for this aspect of their lives.
You can do this if you want to — if being less isolated is worth the effort to you. You just have to be trying to find common ground, rather than grounds for rejection.
Maybe you could try it this fall, as you enter the coop preschool.
I second this idea. My mom joined a babysitting coop in our neighborhood when my brother and I were young. To this day, my parents are still very close friends with two of the couples from that group that didn’t live on our block (as well as the parents who lived and still live on our block) and my brother and I are good friends with some of the kids from that.
Now, that’s not a guarantee, especially if you end up moving at some point, but it’s definitely worth trying out. (And it’s definitely not a guarantee that the kids will remain friends as they get older-I didn’t-but that’s just the nature of kids growing up and figuring out who they are and what they value in life).
1. Were you able to get a partner to make a big change around something like this? If so, what worked both in terms of helping them make the change and taking care of yourself in the meantime?
My husband has this irritating trait whereby I can tell him that someone is bad news 1,000 times and he’ll blow it off, or insist that I’m being “too mean”, but the minute a third party says the same thing – or he directly experiences it himself – he goes, “OMG! You were right about Toxic Person! Why didn’t I listen to you?”
This happened with his aunt and cousin. For years I’ve been walking on eggshells around them and dealing with nasty, pointed comments and toxic behavior. Finally I took myself out of the equation. If the aunt called, I didn’t pick up the phone. If she emailed, I forwarded it to him and let him respond. Once I stopped being the buffer between my husband and these people, he started realizing what a pain in the ass they are. Basically, I had to remove myself from the situation so that he could directly experience their behavior for himself. Once cornered, my husband is a confrontational person, so from there, things escalated to the point where he blew up at his aunt and we are not on speaking terms with them anymore.
It’s awesome. We went to their hometown this summer for a vacation and didn’t see or speak to them the whole time. For years prior to that, I let my husband deal with them completely and 100%. If there was a family event, I didn’t go. If she called, I didn’t talk to her, etc. If another family member calls and tries to pass along her snark, I shut it down.
It also helps that we live far away from them – 2 hours by plane – and that my MIL and FIL are deceased, so the family is spread out and there aren’t very many reunions or family parties where I’d be invited by someone else but expected to see them. This same aunt and cousin have alienated almost all of the other family members too – we were among the last to get the memo.
I apologize if this has been said before.
LW, I understand that your fiancé was abused by these terrible people his whole life and as such has a sort of Stockholm Syndrome reaction to them. That, and the fact that he’s able to show you love and compassion and help you through your terrible past experiences, makes it very easy to say, “Look at the adversity he has overcome. See how strong and kind he is when life could have beaten him down.”
Please try to look at this from this angle: While he HAS overcome SOME of the abuse, he hasn’t overcome ALL of it. Abuse is, as we all know, often cyclical, and while your fella is to be commended for seeking therapy and trying to heal, he IS verbally and emotionally abusive. Just because you can explain its ancestry doesn’t make it okay to abuse someone.
Now. Let’s seriously talk about you and fiancé having kids. This is what will almost certainly happen:
1. Either fiance’s family will be just as horrible and abusive to your children as they are to you;
2. And there is the possibility that fiancé, as their Daddy, will blame them and name all them (abuse!) just as he does to you, claiming they “provoke” the abuse, thereby belittling them and making their emotional foundation just as rickety as his;
3. Or they’ll LOVE the children, and be horrible to you in front of them, teaching them that this is an acceptable way to treat you (and others);
4. Fiancé will back up this lesson as he continues to take their side in their awful and abusive treatment of you.
Is this something you’re okay with your kids learning? Could you watch your kids either become Stockholmed like Daddy, or bullies like the In-Laws? What will you say when your son, at age 10, calls you the same names your in-laws do, or refuses to let you speak like Grandpa does, and Daddy backs him up?
Even if fiance’s therapy goes REALLY well and he experiences a GIANT breakthrough before you have kids (unlikely, from what you’ve written in your letter) you still have that family as an influence for your children. And it doesn’t sound like fiancé would ever be okay with them not seeing your kids.
I get that you don’t want to hear “break up”, so that’s certainly not what I’ll say. But you do need to seriously plan, then, for how you’ll deal with the realities of raising your children in an abusive family (at the very least an abusive extended family).
One way or another, may you find peace and serenity and strength.
LW, you poor darling I feel for you incredibly. You remind me of one of my best girlfriends & I have seen her go thru the same kind of shit for about 10 years. What a bunch of utter arsehole his friends are, fucking oxygen thieves to say the least. If I was you I would have gotten out of bed with my baseball bat swinging asking “who wants to go first”?.
Clearly they have no form of respect for thinking the place you share with him is a open space to party… Anyway nothing you don’t know already!
My friend I mention, who is married has decided to (long ago) to no partake in anything his family have to offer, which is fuck all! On her wedding night she was walking down the hallway of the hotel they were staying in & the sister walked out of one of my friends husbands room. Get this the next morning the sister told everybody it was my friend who was the one who walked out of the room!! This is a drop in the ocean of what this sister is like, there is not enough room on the www to talk about how shit she is…… Even at the reception of t he wedding my friend overheard the mother-in-law & he sister bitching about her in the toilet.
I know you love this man, but you only have one life on this earth & you dnt deserve to spend it surrounded by a bunch of C yUo Next Tuesdays! If he ain’t willing to stick up for you & say that you make him happy he can also get fucked.
If my partner didn’t stick up for me then he wouldn’t exsist. I have had bad relationships, only now that I am blessed with an amazing one can I reflect on how things should be & I have been with him 5 years.
You need to ask yourself if you actually want to mend your DNA with this man, as what if you get the throw back? Fuck that!
I have never met my partners Mum, as she is a loose unit & I forbid her to enter my life & fuck it up, but I knew that from the get go as he told me & rarely speaks to her himself.
If I was you, I would leave. It doesn’t seem like anything will change & by the way you have expressed yourself you don’t appear like a moron & deserve to be treated like a human being!
I wish you well LW, stay strong & tell those fuckwits to fuck off!
I’m not trying to be flippant but I am so glad to have married an orphan. My heart goes out to all of you dealing with terrrible people.
However, bear in mind that these people will eventually start dying off and you will have the marriage/relationship that was built while they were alive.
I’m so late, but LW, I wanted to say that I also noticed your remark that your fiance must be very special to have helped you heal from past sexual abuse. It’s wonderful that your relationship with this man is so much better than that abusive one in your past, and I completely understand feeling awed and grateful and superbonded to him because of it. I tend to do that in my relationship too. I’ll catch myself thinking “Gosh, Boyfriend is so wonderful to always seek out and respect my consent in all contexts” or what have you. Butttt, as my brother once pointed out to me, that stuff is really just the absolute minimum standard of behavior Boyfriend would need to be a decent person. To someone who hasn’t been able to take decency like that for granted in the past though, it really does feel like a luxury rather than a baseline.
I don’t want to tell you what to do, but I really got the feeling from your letter that even though your situation is totally grinding you down, you’ve sort of accustomed yourself to it. You say you won’t leave, because your fiance is so wonderful. I get that. He helped you heal from abuse and that is genuinely wonderful. But the thing is, you are still being abused emotionally by him. Regardless of what you choose to do, I think it’s really important that you challenge this belief you seem to have that a patient, non-abusive-in-one-respect man is a special unicornlike creature that you should never let go of. It’s entirely possible for you to form relationships with men who wouldn’t abuse you in any way. (And not to put too fine a point on it, but I bet you would feel exactly as relieved, amazed, grateful and appreciated by the lack of emotional abuse in those relationships as you do by the lack of sexual abuse in your current relationship, if not more so.) You deserve to not be abused and gaslighted, period. It’s unacceptable behavior. Please please please try to internalize that you deserve better, whether it’s in therapy or not, whether you leave or not.
So right. It reminds me of the Chris Rock routine where he talks about how (some) people seem to expect plaudits just for doing the basic minimum. Put on your Chris Rock ears and imagine him saying: Some guy says ‘I take care of my kids,” well shit m***fkr that’s what you’re supposed to do! Whaddaya want…a cookie??
And not to put too fine a point on it, but I bet you would feel exactly as relieved, amazed, grateful and appreciated by the lack of emotional abuse in those relationships as you do by the lack of sexual abuse in your current relationship, if not more so.
I just thought this was an important point to emphasize, fine though it may be.
Captain, I apologize for using a different nickname, but I want to discuss something pretty personal so I am using a new one. Sorry.
LW, I am a partner with a terrible family. Seriously, I read your letter and I could see my family doing all the things you mentioned — and more. They are not nice people. I am so sorry about how your terrible “in-laws” (scare quotes because I am not sure how you want them referred to) are treating you.
Reading this post and the replies has made me realize something : I am not the only one who benefits from my solution to my toxic and abusive family.
I haven’t spoken to them in almost 20 years now. (I am a classic abandoned gay child, by the way; not that this excuses anything — in fact, coming out was a relief as it gave me an excuse for never interacting with them ever again.)
I know this is not a good solution. No one — and I mean no one — in our society likes ungrateful children who abandon their parents. (But I have to say it’s worked really well for me. I am still breathing.) And I am not suggesting this as a solution in LW’s case, because LW isn’t in control of Partner’s relationship with his parents, nor should she be.
But reading these replies has made me realize that I have spared my wife seventeen years of dealing with the same abuse, gaslighting, and general assholery I grew up with.
And I am so glad of it. It actually makes me feel much better about my salt-the-earth solution. I know that’s not quite right — I did it for me, and I shouldn’t feel guilty, but feelings do not obey Logic.
LW, the important thing here is not your partner’s parents. I have learned, to my intense frustration, that you cannot communicate with or change people like that. You can only change how you interact with them.
The important thing here is your partner.
Many other people have already pointed out the problems in his behavior. He is actively participating in the gaslighting and abuse of you. He is not sheltering you or helping you or on your side in this.
Do you think this is likely to stop? How?
Your partner is the key here. The way he acts to you is the key here. I just wanted to add my voice to the many pointing that out, and to thank the Awkward Army for giving me that insight about my own relationship.
LW, as I was reading your letter, I kept thinking about my sister.
My sister spent ten years in an abusive relationship, trying to change herself so that it would work. Before that, she had many other relationships which were more abusive than her marriage. When she met her husband she honestly thought she’d met an awesome guy who had her best interest at heart. He didn’t. Yes, he helped her leave her awful job. yes, he comforted her when she was vulnerable and down trodden over her abusive past that had nothing to do with him and allowed him to play the white knight after the fact. He was those things, but he was other things, also. He allowed his family to treat her in the way you have described, he blamed her for it, he told her that yeah, that was bad of them but _this totally normal thing she shouldn’t feel bad about_ made them do it. It took a few years of this before he started in, too, with both verbal and physical abuse of her. It took her five more years to finally leave– her newly completed house they’d built together that she’d worked on with her own two hands, her friends, her community, and him.
All of that abuse, it skewed the way she thought about men, about dating. She again chose men over and over who were awful to her, who expected her to caretake their awful families, who blamed her, who eventually also harmed her. It took her less time to leave each one. Even after a time period of being single, doing therapy and working on some of her own issues, when she started sating again she still kept picking the same guy over and over. Her description of the guy would go like this:
Statement A “I met a really great guy. He has x positive quality and z positive quality. He really respects me.”
Statement B “He called me a fucking teasing bitch because I wouldn’t sleep with him on the first date. I got mad and he said he was just joking but then he did it again.”
Statement C “We went out again and he was very charming so I went ahead and slept with him.”
Statement D) “He’s being really weird and making unreasonable demands of me, then getting angry when I don’t comply but being very sweet when I do.”
Statement E “I don’t know why I can’t make him understand why I don’t like him doing xyz really shitty thing to me.”
I finally had to call her out. I told her, stop making excuses for assholes. Stop glossing over the bad shit they do to you just because sometimes they can be nice when they want something. If a guy shows you his ass like that, it cancels out any charm he may have. He’s not a great guy, you don’t have a good thing. You can’t change him, you can’t become just so in order to make him be nice like before. Anything good he does is only to test and see how little niceness it takes to get you to accept his shittiness, and how much shittiness you’ll excuse from him before needing a dose of nicness again.
I am telling you all of this because I wonder if you, too, have an altered perspective on what constitutes a nice guy, what mutual respect looks like from the inside, what actions indicate a supportive relationship. I worry that it is possible that just because your fiance doesn’t physically abuse you, you’re excusing his emotional abuse, and the abuse by proxy you are experiencing at the hands of his family. That is what it is– abuse by proxy. He is allowing others to treat you as a non-entity. He is behaving in an emotionally abusive manner when you ask for validation and support. By doing so, he is emotionally blackmailing you into accepting your abuse from his family, because if you’d just be quiet about the terrible manner in which they treat you, he’d stop being so mean when you complain, right? He is keeping you in a constant state of trying to fix a problem that doesn’t belong to you, a problem which was there before you came around and would still be there if you moved on. His family’s abusiveness has nothing to do with you. His refusal to confront them and back you up has nothing to do with you. I can almost guarantee that this pattern has played itself out in his other relationships, too. You can’t change it. Can you live with it?
Here is what I don’t get: he blames you.
All he is doing is aiding in the abuse his family is putting you and him through when he does this.
I don’t care how “nice” he is. Someone who blames you for other people abusing you is not a nice person.
I just want to say that when you do it (set those boundaries), it can be incredibly liberating. I just had one of those moments. Just. My husband’s brother’s in-laws (let’s call the brother-in-law Pippin, his wife Eowyn, and Eowyn’s parents the Bagginses) are these very gregarious people who like to be surrounded by guests. They like to feed everyone, etc, and have been inviting my husband and I to their Thanksgiving meal (“Everyone comes! It’ll be fun! Don’t be shy!”) for over two years now, before we were even married.
Why the Bagginses (my brother in-law’s in-laws? Really?) are so prevalent in my own life is mainly because they make such an effort to be so, and also because they live an hour away, directly between their wife and son-in-law’s family and us. So, since we want to see our niece and nephews, we make the trip down to their house every now and then.
Well, I dread going down there and count the minutes till we leave, and I’ve been having trouble expressing this to my husband and myself without feeling like a giant anti-social jerk. The Bagginses are so NICE. They sent me invites even when husband and I were living in sin! They always give us snacks for the road! They tell us to come back soon!
But see, I was reading this blog after spending two months away and it clicked in my head as to why. See, Mr. Baggins creeps me out. It’s not because he puts his hand on my leg (he doesn’t) or because he stares at my chest (he doesn’t, most of the time) or because he propositions me. It’s because he always gives me creepy hugs- you know the ones, where they squish your boobs real close and hold you tightly against their bodies long after you’ve gone limp in their arms in an effort to extricate yourself? And because he tends to corner me and be very there, and I can’t escape him, and he likes to talk to me from well within my personal space. And because I feel like there is nothing I can do but deal with this time after time or plead sickness or homework or whatever- because he’s family.
Well, screw that. About an hour ago, I called my husband and I said, “Hey. I need to tell you this. You know how we talked about creepy hugs yesterday?” He remembered. “Well, Mr. Baggins hugs me like that.” And just like that, he understood why I had hedged that he made me uncomfortable, and why I tried to avoid going to their house whenever possible (which always wracked me with guilt as I adore our sobrinos and want to play with them).
And me? I feel AMAZING. And suddenly Thanksgiving is going to be the normal mix of guilt and obligation without the Stomach of Lead and Anxiety it was shaping up to be.
Sorry for the derail. 😦
That is awesome that you had this moment. I hope that you can continue to breathe easier during family times.
Just a note on close talkers: I have a Really Good Friend who is female and a super close/loud talker. Also, she’s super sensitive to feedback and just doesn’t see my personal space bubble. I have discussed with her the facts and the bottom line is, she cannot see the invisible line. She wants to, but she can’t, her bubble is way smaller than mine. So, I do one of two things.
If I’m feeling particularly patient and relaxed, I will just find something to hold between us (usually a drink) at a comfortable distance.
If she is stressing me the eff out, I will say, “Hey, I’m gonna take a step back cuz I’m feeling kinda claustrophobic at the moment. You stay there.” I don’t always have to add the “you stay there”. This saves her the embarrassment of me telling her to BACK UP in public, and she gets the hint. This also (unnecessarily, I know) makes it MY problem and not hers, which I wouldn’t do for a creep but in the case of not wanting to offend family, or if you think talking to him wouldn’t work, this at least gets you Your Space back. Do it enough and maybe he’ll draw a connection between standing close and you needing to take a step away from him (I mean, one can hope). My friend has gotten to the point where, unless we’ve been drinking, I just put my hand on her arm and take a step back and she doesn’t follow, without me having to say a word.
I hope this isn’t terrible advice. I’m choosing not to deal with my friend and her disregard of my boundaries because it is just not an undertaking I have the patience for. I’m not saying anyone should enable boundary-pushers, but this helps me when I just want people to Back Off without any sort of discussion.
Dear Wonderful People~
Thank you for this. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. It has clarified some things for me that I didn’t even know *how to ask* Captain Awkward. Namely: is it emotional abuse if he’s wonderful in all other ways and doesn’t seem to know/mean it? (Clearly the answer here is: yes.) The fact that he can’t/won’t provide basic emotional support, and wants a gold star when he does….? Yeah…. it’s scary. You all rock. I can now return (to the process of evaluating whether this can change and/or is worth my time) to life with some new insight, and I don’t think there’s any way I can convey how very, very much that means to me.
1) I love your handle.
2) I really hope things get better for you soon.
3) Let us know, ok? Don’t be a stranger.
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